Emerging NZ Scientists – David Winter, Sciblogger at ‘The Atavisim’

By Elf Eldridge 15/04/2012 2

My next ‘victim’ is fellow Sciblogger, David Winter, who blogs excellently about all manner of invertebrates and other science issues over at The Atavism. As well as being an active science communicator, David has just handed in his PhD thesis and is in the process of migrating from PhD student to active researcher. Below he shares his insights into the NZ science conundrum…

1. NZAS has picked emerging scientists as the topic of their yearly conference. What does that say about the current climate for emerging scientists in NZ?

I suspect it shows there is widespread concern about the career path from PhD to Postdoc and on academic or industry positions. I’m glad NZAS is going to talk about it, it’s certainly a discussion that comes up when early-career researchers are talking .

2. Do emerging scientists want a future in NZ? Why would they choose NZ instead of overseas?

I do! I’m an evolutionary biologist and there really isn’t a better place in the world to study evolution than here. I know a lot of other recent grads would love to set up in New Zealand. It is a pretty great place to live, and there are plenty of people doing really interesting science here.

3. What paths, realistically, are there for emerging scientists in NZ?

At the moment there are limited opportunities for postdoctoral fellowships – and that’s unlikely to change while postdocs cost the same as 5 PhD students. I really don’t understand why postdocs attract all the overheads they do (hopefully someone at the NZAS meeting can explain why this system is like this, and if it possible to change it).
At present the system encourages New Zealand grads to leave the country for postdocs. For New Zealanders that have done a PhD here I don’t think that’s necesarily a bad thing – science is a global endavour and we are so far from the rest of the world that it is is reasonable to expect someone wanting to set up an academic career in New Zealand has experience and contacts in overseas labs. I’m more interested in how the postdocs we send overseas are going to make it back. The Rutherford Fellowships are only two years old, but I think 1 of the 10 awards have gone to someone that didn’t already have an academic job. Of course, prestigious fellowships shouldn’t be the only way get young scientists who are still buliding their research record, contacts and experiences a foot on the academic ladder – but I’m not sure what other avenues are avaliable at the moment.

4. Is working/studying overseas an important part of being an emerging scientist?

I think so. As I said, science is global and we should expect our scientists to be part of a wider community.

5. Do you have a vision for NZ’s emerging scientists population? What problems do you see with this vision coming to fruition? Do you think the NZAS conference will address all or some of these?

I’m not big on visions! Politicians spend a lot of time talking about how science is vital to the way our country is going to develop, but it’s hard to match the rhetoric with what’s actually happening. I’d just like to think emerging scientists have a realistic chance of establishing themselves in New Zealand and contributing to the decisions we make as a country. I know a lot of the talk at the NZAS meeting will be about jobs industry, but I hope we don’t need to remind anyone science is about more than making a buck. In the next little while the country is going to have to decide how we pay our way in the world, how we treat an aging population and how to limit the effects of those decisions on natural heritage. It would be nice to think young scientists could contribute to and communicate the research that informs those decisions.

N.B. for anyone that has actually read all these – I would hope you’re attending the NZAS conference which is tomorrow but if you’re not you can follow the live twitter feed by following @nzscientists on twitter or the hashtag #nzasconf

2 Responses to “Emerging NZ Scientists – David Winter, Sciblogger at ‘The Atavisim’”

  • Thank you for sharing your insights, David.
    Alas! while the NZAS conference sounds inviting, I won’t be there. I will be helping to train the next generation at the NZ International Biology Olympiad practical camp :-)

  • Early-mid career researchers (EMCRs) around the globe are feeling the impact of these challenges. The UK, USA and Canada are also discussing what changes could be implemented to address the postdoc bottle-neck and provide greater mid-career support. Australia and NZ face additional unique challenges: (a) smaller scientific communities; (b) geographic isolation; (c) smaller funding ‘pots’; and (d) fewer non-academic career paths available to the >80% who ultimately leave academic research.
    The Australian Academy of Science recognises these challenges and in 2011 formed the EMCR Forum to provide a voice for our future scientific leaders. The Forum advises the Academy on EMCR-related issues in all disciplines, to inform their policy recommendations to government and other key groups. This year, the Forum is organising a national meeting themed “Careers in Australian Science” and like NZAS 2012, we are keen to hear from the experts of tomorrow.
    As Forum Chair, I wish you all the best for a successful and rewarding NZAS 2012 meeting, and look forward to seeing the agreed ‘action points’ that will continue to move things forward for NZ’s emerging scientists!

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