The new Rutherford Discovery Fellowships

By Shaun Hendy 28/05/2010 3

In its budget releases earlier this month, the Government provided more details about the new Rutherford Discovery Fellowships.  In particular, the funding for these Fellowships has been obtained by axing NZ S&T Post-Doctoral Fellowships, a scheme that brought myself and a number of my colleagues at the MacDiarmid Institute back to New Zealand early in our careers.

As I argued in a recent post, the old scheme played an important role in developing new talent the RS&T system.  So while the new Discovery Fellowships do address an important need, I think considerable damage has been done to New Zealand’s talent pipeline by the axing of the NZ S&T Post-Doctoral Fellowships.

The loss of the Post-Doctoral Fellowship scheme

There are more than 400 post-doctoral fellows employed in New Zealand; roughly 10% of these, including many of our best and brightest, will be employed by the NZ S&T Post-Doctoral Fellowship scheme.  Although the Fellowships fund basic targeted research, the way they are selected means that they are heavily weighted towards supporting talented individuals.  For this reason, the scheme was especially good at bringing back leading young scientists from overseas at the end of a post-doc or PhD.

In 2008, the New Zealand Science Review devoted an entire issue to the scheme: several articles tell the stories of New Zealand scientists who were able to return to the country via one of these Fellowships.  Indeed, I would probably not have returned to New Zealand at the end of my PhD if the NZ S&T scheme had not existed.

The remaining Fellowships available in New Zealand will support individuals with particular skills as opposed to ability.  Such positions will be project driven rather than talent driven.  With the axing last year of the Bright Futures Top Achiever scholarships, New Zealand has backed away considerably from the support of our best and our brightest during their early development as scientists.  I struggle to see the justification for this in a country where we are increasingly going to have to rely on developing and retaining talented individuals.

The case for the Discovery Fellowships

The Discovery Fellowships are aimed at a different window of a scientist’s career than the now defunct Post-Doctoral Fellowship scheme.  From MoRST’s Q&A sheet on the scheme:

Q. Why has the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology’s Postdoctoral Fellowships scheme been closed?

A. The funding is being re-prioritised to an area of greater need. The most limiting stage for a scientist establishing their career in New Zealand is in their early career, from between three to ten years after they have earned their doctorate.

This need for more early to mid-career support was identified in a report on human resources in RS&T, published in 2007.

Indeed, the transition from a post-doc to a permanent position has become a notoriously difficult stage in a scientist’s career.  At this point in their lives, few scientists will have the luxury of choosing the town, let alone the country, that they will work in — this can be very difficult for relationships, particularly if your partner is also a scientist at a similar career stage.

Even once the job is secured, establishing an independent research programme while developing and delivering teaching material for three or four university courses will require 60-80 hour weeks.  The new scientist will need to recruit their first graduate students, apply for their first grants and persuade their institution to invest in the expensive equipment that will be needed for the next decade.

Does it sound like fun yet?

This is where the Discovery Fellowships come in.  Although precise detail is not yet available, indications are that the Fellowships will be worth $180k pa on average, with a tenure of five years (although there will apparently be two tiers of Fellowship, presumably depending on the career stage of the applicant).  In comparison, a Fast Start Marsden grant is worth $100k pa and has a tenure of three years.

While $180k is not enough to fully fund a position at a CRI or University, it would provide a substantial buy-out from teaching, or a smaller buy-out plus a couple of PhD positions.  In a CRI, it would reduce the Fellow’s dependence on the grants of more senior scientists, allowing them to develop their own research programme.

If the Fellow does not already have a permanent position, most institutions will very likely choose to make up the shortfall needed for a full position.  This was the case with the old scheme, where Fellowships did not come with overheads.

I have no doubt that these Fellowships will be very attractive to young scientists and will be highly sought after.  Rutherford Discovery Fellows will receive a substantial boost in making the leap from post-doc to permanent.

Rearranging the deck chairs?

While I strongly acknowledge the need for the Discovery Fellowships, I am very disappointed at the loss of the NZ S&T Post-Doctoral Fellowships.  New Zealand needs both.

3 Responses to “The new Rutherford Discovery Fellowships”

  • Great post Shaun, I am in total agreement. The details on the new fellowships are scarce so it will be interesting to see how they are structured and how many will be available. Hopefully the scheme will attract lots of great early-career scientists back to NZ. That said, it seems that now could be a very disheartening time to be a PhD candidate – the Bright Futures Doctoral Scholarships are no more, the MacDiarmid Awards have been much reduced (now only the overall winner will receive exposure in the media), and then the postdoc opportunities awaiting upon graduation will be fewer with the axing of the S&T scheme. The overheads associated with postdoctoral fellow salaries are so high at most NZ universities (~120%) that it is simply not economically viable for research proposals to include them – why have one postdoc when you could have five PhD students?! Well, we know there are many reasons why, but I’ll save that rant for another time : ) To completely axe the S&T postdocs seems to me to be a little short-sighted – a lot of eggs in one basket…

  • As one of those unfortunate PhDs just finishing and happens to be into applied science in the agriculture sector, this leaves me very few options to create profit for “New Zealand Inc”, rather I must…

    -Go overseas (hopefully with my family)

    -Stay and get out of applied science al togeather

    I am deeply concerned that this drives our PhD’s off shore.

    As for myself, I must now tell my various commercial partners/collaborators that their research plans involving me are no longer fundable in NZ.