I read with interest James Renwick's column in the latest issue of New Zealand Science Review (vol. 68 no. 3) and in particular empathized with the disillusionment of many scientists in both New Zealand and Australia. The outcome that most of the 5500+ scientists polled, while passionate and excited about the scientific research they were doing, were worn down and disappointed by ‘the system’, certainly resonated with me. This was also true of Lesley Hunt’s paper (cited in the column) which I read a few months ago. I would recommend reading that paper to anyone currently feeling trapped in the current New Zealand science system. I found myself saying ‘Yes!’ after every sentence. Such feelings of depression, frustration and disenfranchisement led me more than two years ago to resign from my position at NIWA, which I had held for 15 years, 4 months and 6 days (but wasn’t really counting). I didn’t resign because I had a better job offer elsewhere or even a position somewhere else. I resigned because I realised just how unhappy I was and that I would rather quit science and be unemployed than to continue as I was.
I subsequently decided to establish by own research company and Bodeker Scientific has been up and running since 1 October 2009. I have successfully managed to keep myself alive and the company has now grown to support a total of about 3 FTEs. While it has been, and continues to be, quite the rollercoaster ride and somewhat stressful, that stress has been a different sort of stress to that which I experienced at NIWA which resulted, in part, from the situation where I was assigned great responsibility without being allocated the resources to fulfil that responsibility. Over the past two years, for the first time in a long time, I am really excited about the research we are doing at Bodeker Scientific and feel quite positive about the future, in spite of the economic storm clouds on the horizon and that I am battling a little to find stable funding to support our work. I may be hungry but at least I’m free.
But then, after reading James’ column, I began to wonder: how much of the research being done in New Zealand, and which is so desperately required by New Zealand, could be done by small (<10 people) nimble companies that are highly sensitive and responsive to the needs of their clients? Such companies would be flat, no hierarchy, no managers, no media consultants, no IT department, no legal department. Gaining access to large-scale infrastructure may be a problem, but loose federations of small companies can easily band together and rent/hire such facilities as and when required. Positions in such companies would be fluid and seldom, if ever, permanent. But who wants/needs a permanent position? It’s the 21st century. Does anyone really want to stagnate, working for the same crowd for a decade? Work life becomes dynamic and exciting. These companies would need to be smart, innovative and adaptive. But being free of an overbearing and burgeoning management structure should allow that to happen. The system as a whole would very quickly become subject to Darwinian pressures. You snooze you lose. Those companies that do not quickly evolve and adapt, will die. How different would the science-scape in New Zealand be compared to the palaeo world of the hulking behemoths that are the CRIs? Perhaps it is time for such a change?