Emerging NZ Scientists – Cosmin Laslau, MESA Chairperson

By Elf Eldridge 31/03/2012

For those that aren’t aware the NZ Association of Scientists (NZAS) has decided to make the topic of its annual conference “Do Emerging* Scientists have a Future in New Zealand?”. The conference is being held at Rutherford House in Wellington on the 16th April and has the usual collection of suspects from business, academia and government speaking about the fate of scientists in NZ. As a person who loves experimenting (I’ve always been appalling at theory!), I thought this seemed a little backward and decided to get some views from thoughts from ACTUAL** emerging scientists from across NZ. I’ll be presenting these as text interviews over my next few blog posts before the conference – comments and criticisms are welcomed!
I’ve started off with the Cosmin Laslau, a PhD student at Auckland University and Chairperson of the MESA (MacDiarmid Emerging Scientists Association), who will be speaking at the conference on behalf of emerging scientists throughout NZ. Below he notes some of the important points he hopes to raise. (N.B. These represent Cosmin’s own personal views and not those of MESA, MacDiarmid Institute, Auckland University, Sciblogs or any other affiliated organisations). If you disagree, or if there’s something missing, bring it up in the comments!
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?

The current climate is in a state of flux – troubled, but promising. There is a crescendo of interest around the fate of emerging scientists in New Zealand, and for that we must thank – to take a few examples here – the tireless and astute activism of the late Sir Paul Callaghan, reports by the Ministry of Education (showing that nearly half of this country’s recent PhD graduates leave), and even the recent restructuring of funding and educational frameworks (which, if nothing else, focuses policy makers on what to do with us scientists).
This interest is promising because, at the very least, it indicates political and administrative awareness of a key fact: NZ’s emerging scientists must be valued and actively managed, as they are an essential component of the country’s future prosperity. But this interest is also symptomatic of some serious underlying issues, as highlighted in my next answers below.

It is important not to misread ‘current interest’ as ‘forthcoming solutions’: for these conferences and initiatives to bear fruit, there must be administrative leadership and vision at the highest levels of government and institutions. There is scant evidence for this, making the current and future climate for emerging scientists in NZ an uncertain one.
2. Do emerging scientists want a future in NZ? Why would they choose NZ instead of overseas?

A future in NZ is something that many emerging scientists yearn for. It is a wonderfully peaceful, beautiful, multicultural and clean country, with its cities regularly vying for top spots in international quality of life surveys. So, as Sir Callaghan noted, in many ways this is a place where talent wants to live (though the country shouldn’t rest on its laurels, as societal, environmental and economic problems do exist). Lifestyle rankings present a moving target however, a global competition for talent that is very real, with emerging scientists and their skills effortlessly international and transferable.

Wanting a future in NZ and actually having one are two different things. If there are no ways to put a highly skilled science PhD to work here, no opportunities, that person will be forced to leave; once gone, they are hard to bring back. So the biggest problem for the future of emerging scientists is simply a lack of visible opportunities, a problem that needs leadership and ingenuity to solve.

I also want to rail against the myth that NZ cannot do quality science. (As this is a source of much hand-wringing over why emerging scientists may not want a future here.) This is nonsense – our scientists have repeatedly shown that they can do research worthy of publication in the world’s best journals, and they have also founded some world-beating startup companies. If you are intelligent and hard-working enough, you can do world-class science in NZ. Of course part of it depends on your field and how much infrastructure is needed (NZ won’t be hosting the world’s next giant particle accelerator, for example), but given how internationally collaborative research is, it is clear: quality science can be done and IS done in this country, period.
3. What paths, realistically, are there for emerging scientists in NZ?

The myopic answer to this is a pathway in academia (a route often recommended by those who have spent their entire lives in academia). The math against this is very simple: during their career an average professor will train about 15-30 PhDs (or more). Only one of those PhDs can replace that professor once they retire. Thus, for the vast majority of emerging scientists, academia cannot be the answer – not because they do not want to become professors, but simply because they cannot. (Alas, many will spend a frustrating decade trying, typically as roaming postdocs in a state of financial limbo and disrupted adulthood.)

No, the answer is not academia, it is the broader economy. Industry, entrepreneurship and commercialization is where NZ needs its emerging scientists. They must create value and generate prosperity for this country. Hearing this irks some academics, many of whom prefer to not sully the purity of their science with considerations of profits and so forth. Let’s be clear: this is not an attack on pure science. If each emerging scientist could be given a tenured university post and do blue sky research, they would take that opportunity happily and do pure science; but as that privilege can never be granted to (or earned by) 90% of emerging scientists, the reality of needing to integrate most of us into the broader economy must be accepted and acted upon. It is bizarre and completely counter-productive that this reality is ignored in NZ academia, and in most (but not all) other countries.

Finally, I must mention social and policy work: this is an area avoided by scientists, which is an appalling and increasingly dangerous trend. Critical issues deeply rooted in science – such as energy, conservation and climate – are being debated and legislated by the scientifically illiterate. One hundred years ago this may sufficed, perhaps even shrugged off as a natural divide between our laboratory-bound researchers and our socially-astute politicians; today though, such a divide is a recipe for disaster on a global scale. Social and policy work is honorable and important – some emerging scientists should strongly consider it.
4. Is working/studying overseas an important part of being an emerging scientist?

Excellent question, which cuts right to the heart of a key requirement: for NZ’s emerging scientists to be world-class, they must see the world for extended periods. The issue for our leaders and policy makers is ensuring they come back.

Why is working or studying overseas – as opposed to simply travel – so important? Because there is much to learn from how other countries do their science and commercialization, whether it’s the relentlessly entrepreneurial drive of the States, the industrialized know-how of Germany, the work ethic and attention to detail of Japan, or the punching-above-their-weight achievements of Sweden (a country with the same population as ours), to take but a few examples. To compete with giants on the world stage, at least some of NZ’s emerging scientists must immerse themselves in foreign universities or industries for years, and then come back with lessons learned, perspectives broadened and motivations sparked.

Even in the narrower scope of pure research, going overseas is extremely important. Not only are there key lessons to learn (literally and figuratively), but top-notch science today is almost exclusively collaborative and international. Key breakthroughs are overwhelmingly made by interdisciplinary teams that span borders. Despite our relative isolation, NZ science must not be an exception to this; on the contrary, to overcome the limitations of small population numbers and resources, NZ must be at the forefront of instigating international collaborations.
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?

Absolutely – my vision for the future of NZ’s emerging scientists is clear, and, in some ways, quite simple and obvious: supplement academic supervision with mentorship from commercially involved scientists. Emerging scientists must be valued and actively managed, guided through their transition from academia into NZ’s economy. Failure to do this will result in many leaving – which is already happening on an alarming scale, by the way. Nearly half of the PhDs we train leave and do not return, much more so than those trained in, for example, Canada or Britain. What a waste.

Simply put, it costs New Zealand over a hundred thousand dollars to train each PhD student (once all of the scholarships, equipment, funding, overhead and administration costs and so forth are added up). Emerging scientists are expensive and time-consuming to train. They are valuable. Yet there is not much effort to direct them into the workforce once they finish, which is a very strange way of investing money and resources. Why is there not a formal program for integrating emerging scientists into commercially-relevant positions? My proposal to do this becomes less strange when one considers the case of medical doctors: we do not simply train medics and then leave them to their own devices. No, they are matched up with starting residencies in hospitals, to continue their training and integrate into a working life beyond their university days. Once we accept that 90% of emerging scientists are destined for life outside academia, it becomes obvious and self-evident that they require mentoring and formal pathways for their next steps.

But why can’t they sort it out for themselves? Let’s lay out some uncomfortable truths: the average scientist is not an astute networker, by personality and by (lack of) training. Exceptions exist, but most of us are more comfortable at the lab bench than shaking hands and making small talk at networking functions. And with the pressure to finish a PhD in 3-4 years, there’s hardly any time to mingle. Moreover, many of NZ’s emerging scientists are new to the country, lacking the decades of natural network forming that most Kiwis benefit from. And there exists a fundamental rift between the science and business communities, hampering communication at all levels of the hierarchy. Rather than ignoring this problem, NZ needs to confront it head-on.

The solution is to pair each PhD student with commercially astute scientists tasked with mentoring them during their transition out of academia, with the ultimate goal of successfully integrating them into the NZ economy. There needs to be a formal framework for this. After all, entrepreneurs benefit from startup incubators where they are mentored by business executives that volunteer part-time; an equivalent framework needs to be put in place for NZ’s emerging scientists. The difficulty is finding the leadership and political will to carry this out. I hope that the highly-placed luminaries attending the NZAS conference will be able and willing to.

The good will is already there. I’ve personally met dozens of incredibly intelligent, well-connected businessmen and scientists that are passionate about NZ’s future as a knowledge-based economy. These are people that would be happy to volunteer their time for NZ’s brighter future. What’s needed is a formal structure to organize all of this good will.

* here I take Emerging scientists to be those coming through as current post-graduate students, and not those who are being enticed outside of caves in which they have lived.
**I do NOT mean to imply here that there wont be any of these at the conference. I’ll certainly be there – heckling ashamedly from the back row – however I am a little concerned about the relative proportion of speakers from the different groups, hence the impetus for these interviews.

0 Responses to “Emerging NZ Scientists – Cosmin Laslau, MESA Chairperson”

  • Nice interview, Cosmin made some very interesting and accurate (in my opinion) statements about Emerging scientists in New Zealand. This has however made me feel worse that I am unable to attend the conference myself! 🙁
    But I look forward to hearing about how it goes!