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I’m going to finish up my following of the NZAS Emerging scientists conference, with my own reflection on the things that have been said and done. Sciblogs own Peter Griffin has already reviewed many of the main discussion points of the conference – so I won’t rehash them here (although you can follow the hashtags #nzas and #nzasconf for a broader viewpoint). I simply intend to pull out what I believed to be some important takehome messages, actions and knowledge I gleaned from the attendees. I stress again that what follows in entirely my own opinion, for the naive and idealistic viewpoint that it is, and does not represent the views of ANY organisations that I’m affiliated with!image3063

Optimism

The question: “Do emerging scientists have a future in New Zealand?that the conference centred on, is an interesting phrasing of this social conundrum. A typical first response it elicits is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and this came out at the conference with many participants polarising into either camp. The question gets right to the heart of the matter, however, it doesn’t immediately prompt imagining of what that future could be. I point this out because many at the conference seemed to approach the topic from an entirely cynical viewpoint. Is it any wonder that we have difficulty getting students to stay in science when the messages they’re receiving from their mentors are so pessimistic? To be clear: New Zealand’s emerging scientists have a fantastic future, whether in science industry or anywhere else and NZ is a wonderful place to live, work and play. As scientists we must remember that science is not synonymous with cynicism, and cannot risk underestimating the impact this has on our future generation’s interest in a topic. Perhaps the question “What is the future for emerging scientists in NZ?” may have prompted a more optimistic discussion.

Should scientists commercialise?

This should have been explicitly addressed at the conference. Scientists are certainly capable of pursuing the commercial avenues of their work, however the question remains whether they are the right people to do it. Anecdotally, it seems that pushing people to commercialise when they don’t want to is a sure-fire route to failure, however sometimes all it takes is a little push to give scientists the confidence they need to branch out in entirely new ways. Phil O’Rielly from BusinessNZ said it best with “…some scientists wont be the right people for this, and that’s ok. But some WILL be.” When many see the commercialization of science as a potential alternative to the academic career, we should also be clear that this will not be the case for everyone, and we need to cater to the needs of ALL our emerging scientists – not just those that fit nicely into categories.

Global career concerns

Several conference speakers also noted that the career concerns experiences by NZ scientists are by no means unique to NZ. They form the tip of an iceberg caused by generations of PhD students competing for fewer and fewer academic jobs as the retirement age keeps growing and academic institutions increasingly have access to quality employees across the globe. The lesson here (I think) is that, no matter where you go in the world, you will always have to fight to find a permanent career in science. Scientists MUST look at other career options before the end of their studies, it’s a simple numbers game.

There is a more subtle point here: that many feel ‘entitled’ to employment after their studies. I feel that we must remember that you can’t always do what you want, and we do have some responsibility to do what NZ needs. This became clear in a talk I went to last year by science communicator, John Watt. He reminded us that less than 100 years ago, New Zealanders were putting their entire lives on the line to ensure the future of the country they loved. What does that then say about us, if we won’t even consider changing careers for our county’s good?

The Leadership Question

Andrew Preston, a MacDiarmid Institute alumni who has started his own business: Publons, also pointed out the need for training not just scientists, but leaders. He was, of course, promptly asked exactly HOW to do this and he had no clear answer. In my mind there is a simple answer here, although not one that Andrew could have given: simply that to grow leaders you must force them to lead. MESA is a stellar example, where students who had little or no aspirations of leadership, repeatedly take on responsibilities far above those normally given to a PhD student, and learn how to lead in the process. Personally I believe (and I’ve seen this several times in both Chiasma and MESA) that one of the fundamental qualities of leadership is being able to figure out what to do when you don’t know. (And yes, this belief did make the aforementioned question rather hilarious to listen to!) Leaders are already growing amongst our emerging scientists at the moment, all we need do it to continue to provide them with opportunities to lead and I have no doubt that they will grow into the leaders we need. (Look at Cosmin Laslau, Ben Mallett, Elizabeth Connor and Natalie Plank if you want specific examples).

The Callaghan responsibility

Sir Paul’s name became the catch-cry of the conference, his name and ideals popping up more times than I cared to count. Sir Paul was fond of saying that one of the best things about NZ was that we’re one of the few remaining places in the world where if you want to make a difference, you can. Implicit in this, I personally find a deeper truth: if you want to see change in NZ, you have to do it yourself. NZ is to small for us simply complain and wait for someone else to solve our problems for us. I challenge everyone who complained at the conference – it’s up to YOU to fix what you found fault with. No-one else will fix it for you.

Creative options for science

It’s also worth noticing that many scientists do science, like myself, do science for the simple reason that they love it! This is a pretty clear barrier when encouraging scientists to consider other fields of employment, however it’s becoming more and more common to participate in ‘social science’ worldwide. With the advent and proliferation of makerspaces, bioscience spaces, hackerspaces and global citizen science projects, not being a professional scientist is becoming less and less of a barrier to actually participating in science – and even more important, this allows you COMPLETE control over what you study, research, create and invent (I have yet to see a garage-built synchrotron though, contrary to what Iron man 2 suggested). Whilst the examples above are largely overseas, Wellington in particular has a vibrant blossoming ‘social science’ scene with inclusive groups for makers, engineers, biologists (comingsoon I hear!), astronomers, physicists, space scientists and more.

The Communication Issue

The low point of the conference for me personally was the low standard of communication amongst some of the presenters. This is in NO WAY a criticism of the conference organisers, but rather of the presentations themselves. Staring with the politicians kicking off the day with consecutive strike-outs when trying to nail down solutions to the relevant issues; the quality of presentations ranged from technically amazing to physically painful. I accept that not everyone can be a stunning communicator – but EVERYONE, especially those portending to have some lobbying aspirations, should be able to critique their own talks to get the basics right. By this I mean simple things like: knowing when you have too much content for a 20 minute talk, not simply repeating verbatim what the previous speaker said just because that’s what you’ve got written in your notes and knowing that over 50 words on ONE powerpoint slide is too much (honestly anything over about 25 is).

There is simply NO excuse for poor basics when SCANZ, Elizabeth Connor and SMC happily give advice and feedback on science communications to help you improve them. And even if you believe you’re perfect there is always room for improvement – and you’re probably just wrong. Neither science nor business would accept reports with incorrect grammar or spelling, so why are we still sitting through talks that can’t even get the basics right?

Action points

Peter Griffin and Shaun Hendy closed the conference asking for everyone to come up with 5 specific ‘action points’ for people to follow up on after the conference. For what it’s worth I’ve written what I intend to do/keep doing below*:

  • Mentorship* – help interested graduates find mentors with expertise in commercialization, entrepreneurship and business, and curate a list of willing mentors. (Get in touch if you want specifics)
  • Internships* – Chiasma is aiming to facilitate and report on ~20 student placements of science and engineering students in Wellington companies this year. Students NEED this experience to become attractive employees.
  • Leadership development* – I will keep encouraging emerging scientists to take on leadership roles, and point them to my own mentors and idols to help grow leaders from our emerging scientist population.
  • Public/govt face of science* – There is a HUGE public appetite for science that’s currently going unfulfilled. The public cannot be expected to continue funding science, especially blue-sky projects, if they are not reminded of its importance, benefits and the scientific process. Elizabeth Connor is spearheading a push by young scientists to get more public ‘face time’, to ‘demystify’ science and scientists, and to share our passions with the public. (i.e. watch this space for Tell Us a Story volume #2 during 2012)
  • Science communication*  – Finally, I’ll follow my crusade to educate scientists on how to communicate. I’ll encourage scientists across the board to challenge themselves to improve, and give them simple ways to do it (i.e. the FutureinTech programme). I’ll continue to be a little brutal about bad communication till the message gets across (check out my Twitter stream from #nzasconf if you want to know what I mean) – we should NOT be complacent of poor communication. It does more harm than good.

Final thoughts

“Sir Paul Callaghan has set the target for a prosperous future New Zealand. We must not only achieve but surpass this, in both quality and quantity, if we want to see a lasting social change. It’s everyone’s responsibility to play their part, so what are YOU doing?”

*and I’ll happily collaborate on any on any of these if people are interested. Use the contact page to get in touch.