Nation’s top talent head overseas for jobsto deregulate university fees appear to be forcing increasing numbers of the nation’s top young academics to leave the country, according to National Tertiary Education Union President Jeannie Rea.
This is despite the fact that the government so far has been unable to find a way to overcome Senate obstruction of the passage of its controversial higher education reforms.
An attempted overthrow of Prime Minister Tony Abbott by a disaffected backbench on 9 February seems to have paralysed the federal government.
Rea said the government’s cuts to research and higher education were making Australia “unappealing to its best researchers”.
“Reports that researchers are being forced to look overseas for secure employment opportunities are extremely worrying, though unsurprising given that the Abbott government has cut A$878 million (US$675 million) from science and research agencies since it was elected in 16 months ago,” Rea said.
Unappealing for researchers
She said that job insecurity, research funding cuts and the prospect of “skyrocketing graduate debt” as a result of fee deregulation were making Australia increasingly unappealing for young and innovative researchers.
“Losing our top researchers to countries such as the United States will have disastrous consequences for industry. Australia will fall further and further behind other countries as a result. The government’s disregard for science and research will only continue to force our researchers overseas.”
Federal Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane has refused to rule out further cuts to the Australia’s leading research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, in future budgets.
The CSIRO staff association estimates that government funding reductions, including a A$110 million (US$85 million) cut in the Abbott government’s first budget last May, have slashed staff levels by more than 20%.
Biologist turns down fellowship
In the latest instance of a young researcher forced to leave Australia to work in the US, award-winning evolutionary biologist Dr Danielle Edwards turned down one of Australia’s most prestigious research fellowships for young scientists “in frustration at the funding cuts”.
Edwards specialises in reptiles and investigates how genetic diversity is affected by factors such as the environment. She told ABC radio that her work fed into important questions around what species could survive extinction and why.
"I work on studying the forces of the environment that shape the evolution of a range of different reptiles and amphibians," she said. "Understanding how diversity is generated across the landscape is going to be important for keeping that diversity in the face of climate change and ongoing extinction."
Edwards said she had been applying for research positions in Australia for the past four years, but had only been able to work in the United States. Recently she was invited to apply for a position at the CSIRO but, before her application could be considered, the job was gone.
"When the government came in and put a freeze on CSIRO hiring, that search was subsequently cancelled. I was no longer able to apply," she said.
Edwards was then offered a highly competitive Australian Research Council ‘Discovery Early Career Researcher Award’ worth A$385,000 (US$296,000) but she turned it down. The most recent round of funding cuts to science and the prospect of university fee deregulation meant she saw no future in Australian science, she said.
"The prospect of getting a more permanent position outside the three-year fellowship did not look good given my struggles trying to find a position. Declining funding rates were also a factor.
“Given that most of the research in Australia – if you're a research scientist – is undertaken by PhD students, the idea that they would have to pay fees as well would mean you would be unable to get people in the lab to do what needed to be done."
Edwards said optimism about the future was not great for those who wanted to work in academia and science in Australia.
"With the lack of government support that seems to be continuing and getting worse with the closure of CSIRO positions all over the place, I think it's going to be really hard for Australian scientists to produce world-class research going into the future," she said.
I left just a few weeks ago and am now working in Europe. I also have many colleagues from Australia leaving and I told my students to leave and do their higher ed overseas.
Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page