Australian scientists' morale hits rock bottom amid university job cuts

Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said governments needed to invest more into science and employers needed to figure out how to make scientists' jobs more secure. Picture: supplied
Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said governments needed to invest more into science and employers needed to figure out how to make scientists' jobs more secure. Picture: supplied

Morale among scientists has plummeted this year as the effects of COVID and insecure work push them to the brink.

A survey by Science and Technology Australia found almost two in three scientists (62.5 per cent) said staff morale had declined in their organisation over the past 12 months, up from 45.8 per cent the previous year.

Almost one in four scientists were employed on fixed-term contracts with an average length of 18 months. One in five scientists indicated they planned to leave the profession entirely in coming years while 70 per cent said worker fatigue had increased.

It comes after Universities Australia modelling suggested universities slashed 17,000 jobs in the first year of the pandemic.

Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said the workload of the remaining scientists had dramatically increased as a result of the job cuts.

"The worry that we have and that our country should have is that we lose brilliant scientists, that they hit breaking point and just decide they're going to step out of the science system, and that would be a heartbreaking loss for the country and for our future prosperity," she said.

She said early-career scientists often faced years of career uncertainty as they moved from contract to contract.

"There are not that many other sectors where there is such a significant portion of the workforce who is constantly having to reapply for their own jobs cycle after cycle," she said.

"Every hour or month or week that people spend worrying about, 'Will they have a job in the not too distant future', is an hour or a week or a monthly not spent on finding a cure for childhood disease, or working out how to stop species loss."

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Professor Steve Eggins was the former head of the Australian National University's Research School of Earth Sciences and was responsible for finding a way to cut his department's budget by 30 per cent.

He said the cuts had increased the workload of the remaining staff by 50 per cent, and that in the typical academic work balance of 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research and 20 per cent service, research was the activity likely to be squeezed out. PhD students were now rethinking a career in academia after seeing the extreme workload of the current academic staff.

The survey found scientists worked an average of 7.5 hours of overtime per week and 58.9 per cent said they received no extra pay or compensation for overtime.

Ms Schubert said governments needed to invest more into science and employers needed to figure out how to make employment more secure.

"We have to chart a course for scientists that supports them, gives them more job security and invest more heavily in the work of science, because it's a future pathway to prosperity for us all," she said.

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This story Scientists' morale hits rock bottom amid uni job cuts first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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