President's address to the 2012 NZAS conference

Welcome to this year’s New Zealand Association of Scientists conference.   I’m Shaun Hendy, President of the Association.  We are an independent body that aims to give scientists a voice on issues that affect the practise and application of science in this country. 

This year we have come together to discuss whether emerging scientists have a future in New Zealand. 

Let me start by acknowledging the presence of the Honourable David Carter, Minister for Primary Industries and Minister of Local Government, and David Shearer, Leader of the Labour Party and Spokesperson for Science and Innovation.  It is great to see interest in this issue from both of our major political parties.

Last year more than 500 scientists signed an open letter that called for action over the lack of funding for post-doctoral fellowships and the mismatch between the needs of emerging scientists and the design of the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships.  I am very pleased that the author of the letter, Dr Melanie Massaro, has been able to join us and will be sharing her thoughts on the subject with us later today.

We have representatives from across our science and innovation system here. We will hear views from managers at our major research institutions, from emerging scientists and their mentors, and from employers in research intensive industries.

What is an emerging scientist?  It’s not a category that is easy to define.  At the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, there is a very active emerging scientists association, MESA, run by graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.  The Marsden fund offers fast-start grants to scientists up to seven years post-PhD.  The Rutherford Discovery fellowships are now available for scientists from three to eight years post-PhD.

These definitions are convenient but not very enlightening.  To me it is easier to define the complement.  An emerged scientist is someone who has demonstrated the ability to independently pose, formulate and resolve a complex research question, be it in academia or industry.  An emerging scientist is someone who shows the potential to do this but has yet to demonstrate this to their peers. 

How does a scientist go about this?  The scientist must immerse themselves in the literature for years, attend many conferences, and be competent and confident enough in to spot the gap or potential discrepancy in our existing knowledge.  In order to obtain funding and assemble a team, the scientist must persuade others that this gap is worth pursuing and that they are the right person to pursue it. 

But here’s the catch ... to talk the powers that be into letting you loose in the lab with a fresh-faced team of graduate students or a shiny new piece of kit, you need to have already developed a reputation as an independent scientist.  In order to emerge, someone, somewhere needs to take a chance and back you.  

When I look back at my own “emergence” – when today’s emerging scientists were still at school – I see that the scheme that backed me no longer exists. I was brought back to New Zealand from my studies overseas by a Science and Technology Post-doctoral Fellowship in 1998.  The scheme allowed me to re-align my research interests with an unfilled niche in the New Zealand science scene.  Overall, the success rate for applications to this scheme was about 30%.  I estimate that there are more than 300 scientists today in New Zealand who got permanent employment as a result of these Fellowships.  This scheme was discontinued in 2010.   

Today, instead, we have the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships.  These have addressed a very different need – that of retaining our brightest early- to mid-career scientists.  The success rate for applications to this scheme is less than 10% and they have gone to scientists who have either emerged or are on the cusp of emergence.  And despite the stated aim of this scheme to foster our future leaders across the Science and Innovation system, the Fellowships have been awarded almost exclusively to those in universities. 

This change has come during a two year gap in the funding cycle, caused by a major restructuring of the science funding system, and at a time when universities have been manoeuvring for higher placings on the PBRF league tables, making them reluctant to hire young staff with short track records.  Rising overheads and static levels of funding have meant that it is often cheaper to hire two or three PhD students than a more skilled but expensive post-doctoral fellow.  Emerging scientists have been in the eye of the perfect storm.

It is clear to me that as a CRI scientist looking to develop a new research area, I would not have succeeded in today’s environment.

I won’t pre-empt today’s discussion with my own set of solutions, but let me make the following remarks. 

Firstly, a fiscally neutral response to the issues faced by emerging scientists cannot be credible.  According to the OECD, New Zealand’s R&D spending per researcher lies between that of Poland and the Slovak Republic.  So let’s be clear - we need post-doctoral fellowships and discovery fellowships.  We need to lift the resources available to our scientists across the board, including to those in the private sector.  Industry must take advantage of our highly skilled young people by creating new high technology businesses and redoubling its R&D efforts in existing firms.  

New Zealand is now training more scientists than ever, and we know that their success will be crucial to the well being of the country.  Science has underpinned our response to and recovery from the Christchurch earthquakes.  Science underpins the bulk of our exports, whether primary sector or high-technology.  We know that the key to future economic growth lies in the skills and abilities of the current and future cohorts of emerging scientists. 

Whether their futures lie in industry, academia, or the Crown Research Institutes, we must ensure that emerging scientists have the opportunities and resources to establish their careers.  If New Zealanders are to remain prosperous and healthy, and live sustainable lifestyles, these people are crucial.  We need to get this right.

I will just close by noting that the most read article on my blog at sciblogs concerns the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  Second only to that is my article discussing the axing of the S&T Post-doctoral Fellowships.  This brings home to me, in a very personal but quantitative way, the scale of the problems that young scientists are facing today.