Research: A high-status ‘gig economy’ How
Neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley with her 6-month-old Alexander. She was writing grant applications while he was a newborn just to keep her career on foot. Credit: Chris Hopkins.
Ben Schneiders, A high-status ‘gig economy’: How we have failed our researchers, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 2022
Within a week of giving birth, neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley was holding her baby in one hand and typing a grant application with the other. She was trying to save her career.
Between them, Professor Vaughan Macefield and Dr Martin Stebbing have spent six decades conducting high-level scientific research and university teaching.
But under Australia’s increasingly dysfunctional research funding model, both have been left hanging for months, waiting on an email or call to find out if their work can continue.
If the call does not come, their careers as research scientists could be at an end.
“This year I’ve submitted five grant [applications]. My funding runs out in December,” says Macefield, whose research at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne seeks to understand how the brain controls blood pressure.
“I’m actually quite scared. I’ve got no idea what will happen next year.”
Stebbing is researching at the Florey Institute the role of the nervous system in digestive disorders. He saw his May funding deadline pass with no news on his grant application. With his contract close to expiry, he now he has just days left as a scientist.
“It’s a very precarious way to live my life,” he says of a career that has included setting up and managing major research facilities. “I’ve run out of options … my career as a scientist is, basically, ending.”
Both men gave up ongoing academic roles at universities to return to their calling: original scientific research. But those decisions made them part of a system that scientists say is broken – a “gig economy” of short-term contracts where researchers can spend two to three months of the year working on grant applications, not science.
It’s just one part of what researchers and university staff say is a broader crisis in which research and higher education have been starved of funds and are short of political friends, and in which insecure work, casualisation and wage theft are at levels only otherwise seen in low-status, low-paid occupations. Something, they say, has got to give.
A broken system
The two main federal government bodies that fund scientific research in Australia are the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council. The combined $1.6 billion in annual funding available through them has barely increased for a decade. Once inflation is accounted for, that’s a real cut of close to 20 per cent. Where once more than 20 per cent of grant applications were funded, it’s now often less than 10 per cent.
Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty, who is still active researching immunity and influenza, said a healthy system would fund 30 to 40 per cent of applications.
The result is that some of Australia’s best scientific minds must participate in a financial and scientific lottery that may or may not allow them to continue their work. It has prompted concerns of a brain drain out of science.
“Success rates for research grants are too low; everyone is in a terrible situation because a lot of quality stuff is not being funded,” Doherty told The Age. And, “one-year contracts are ridiculous, no one should be doing one-year contracts … It takes a lot of time to make something happen in science.”
One consequence of the falling funding is that where grants are awarded, they often fail to cover the cost of hiring staff. As a result, many scientists have to work significant unpaid overtime. The universities – typically the legal employer – do not do enough to ensure wage theft or overwork is not occurring.
“It’s a gig economy,” says Macefield. “We are all just scavenging for these little amounts of funding.”
Doherty said scientific researchers lived more like artists than, for example, doctors, whose jobs were far more secure. “It’s always been a very tenuous situation in a way; people live by their wits.”
Since 2013, Australia has slid badly in spending on research and development from just below the OECD average to significantly behind. Australia spends about 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product on research compared to 2.5 per cent for the OECD as a whole and 3.2 per cent in the United States and Germany.
Federal Labor’s election platform targets increasing that to “closer” to 3 per cent, which would require significant increases in spending over time.
‘Burnout and depression’
A research survey last year of early-to-mid-career scientists at Melbourne and Monash universities found more than half were reporting burnout – much higher than in other types of work – while 28 per cent reported “clinically significant symptoms of depression”. Nearly 90 per cent reported working overtime and only a third of those surveyed said they were not considering leaving academia.
The study found significant pressures from job insecurity, workload and competitiveness. The more junior the researcher, the less likely they thought they were to have a contract renewed.
Dr Trevor Steward, one of the main researchers who conducted the study, is typical of the mobile, international profession. He grew up in California, did postgraduate work in Spain and is now based in Melbourne. He uses MRI machines to understand the brain circuitry of patients with conditions such as bulimia.
He first came to Australia on a one-year contract and then got an NHMRC and Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grant that funded a five-year position.
Steward said scientists were suffering from the precariousness built into the system. The lack of job security affected their ability to get a loan, a mortgage or even start a family.
Within a week of giving birth, neuroscientist Natalia Egorova Brumley was filling out a grant application to try to ensure her career did not stall, or end.
“I was typing on the computer with one hand while holding the baby in the other,” the PhD graduate from the University of Cambridge said.
Her current grant was due to expire at the end of this year, so she needed to line up another one to ensure she had several years more work locked in. With the grant round only coming around once a year, she had no choice but to apply.
“There needs to be some systemic changes to alleviate the stress,” she said.
Dr Fern Koay is a brilliant young scientist on secondment to Harvard. Originally from Malaysia, she started in Melbourne as an international student and is now part of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne.
She describes a “very complex power imbalance” within research that leaves many young scientists vulnerable to exploitation and worse. The system of funding – where most research is funded by government grant while the university pays the wage – can leave researchers heavily reliant on the goodwill of a supervisor. That power imbalance is amplified by the lack of funding.
The Monash and Melbourne University survey backed that up. It recorded high levels of bullying, sexism and racism directed at scientific researchers. The recommended solution: longer-term contracts and more continuing employment.
Steward said the University of Melbourne knows the sector has an issue around insecure work and working conditions and has taken early steps to address it.
A University of Melbourne spokesperson said the findings of the survey were “concerning” and it was making changes which included transitioning some staff to continuing contracts. For others, the university was making employment contracts the same length as the research grants themselves.
In the past two years, these measures had resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in the number of staff on fixed contracts in the Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Department, while the numbers of academic staff moving from fixed-term to continuing contracts had risen by 31 per cent.
The university would provide funding to repeat the survey every two years.
Professor Ross Coppel, deputy dean at Monash’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, said its responses to the survey were geared to improving the mental health of researchers and to boost their skills. It was also developing programs to increase the job security of researchers, he said, and the faculty took these issues “very seriously”.
It is not only researchers who are subject to potential exploitation. Across Australia, 11 universities are under investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman for underpaying academic staff. So bad are working conditions that the sector was recently lumped together with the notorious hospitality and horticulture industries as a priority target of the Ombudsman.
Universities are a significant exception to the general rule that casual or insecure work most affects relatively low-skilled workers. In other white-collar industries such as finance and public administration, fewer than 10 per cent of workers are employed as casuals. But data produced by Monash, Melbourne, RMIT and Swinburne universities shows more than half the workforce – tens of thousands of workers including administrative and professional staff – are casuals or contractors.
Universities in other parts of the country produce less detailed data, but where it exists – such as at the University of Sydney and University of NSW – the levels are similar.
“Our casual workforce is varied because teaching needs are varied,” said a University of Sydney spokeswoman. Senior professional practitioners who took short-term contracts to share their expertise made up one-third of the university’s casual staff.
A Monash University spokesperson said it was pursuing policies to boost the job security of researchers, which had resulted in 54 contract employees moving to continuing jobs over the last year while about 600 casual and sessional employees now had “more secure forms of employment”.
National Tertiary Education Union Victorian assistant secretary Sarah Roberts said the union would soon serve a log of claims on the University of Melbourne over pay and job security. Other major universities will follow.
“Even though the funding base for universities is extremely consistent, the people doing the work are on short-term contracts year by year,” she said.
The union wants to make permanent and ongoing work the default form of employment and to push for the ability for casual and contract workers to convert to permanent after qualifying periods.
Under the current system “all of the risk of employment is transferred onto the employee,” Roberts said. “People have internalised the oppression they have experienced.”
Higher education researcher Andrew Norton recently described the “low-hanging fruit” in research policy reform of allowing people to spend more time on research and less seeking funding. Universities should receive an allocation of money for them to distribute, which would end the problem of grants not fully funding research, he said.
Doherty said the problem was ultimately about money. More could be done to fund research from philanthropy and through expanding research links to industry.
“We’ve got to go back to the basics. The whole research environment is underfunded. The LNP had no interest in it,” he said. “That NHMRC funding and ARC funding, which is enormously important, has been steadily eroded.
“What we need is firstly we need more funding and we need more opportunities … expanding the high-tech sector in Australia. We need more entrepreneurial spirit here … As long as science is expanding there’s lots of opportunities for junior researchers.”
Macefield, 61, is closer to the end of his career than the start but worries about young people. “They are getting disheartened, they are just leaving the sector as they see no hope.
“Unless you have a continuing academic appointment at a university, everyone else in the research sector is on short-term grants, Florey, Baker, Peter Mac, everyone. No one has a permanent job and there are no such things as permanent jobs.”
Stebbing lined up another good job outside scientific research as he waited with no news on whether his research funding application would be approved.
“I work 60, 70 hours a week, I’m very underpaid for what I do,” he says. He said people would often take funding that paid half their wage while working full-time. He regularly has had to console younger researchers.
“The only way our system works is encouraging young people to enter the system and knowing there is no future for them,” he says.
“I have a permanent box of tissues in my office. I would regularly have someone crying to me while asking for advice.”