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Australian junior scientists report damaging lack of support at work

System built on short-term contracts and grants causes many to consider leaving.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Credit: Adapted from Getty

Four out of five early-career researchers in Australia have considered leaving science or their jobs because of factors including questionable research practices and an absence of institutional support, suggests a survey of 658 postdocs and junior faculty members.

The study was led by Katherine Christian, a social scientist at Federation University Australia in Ballarat, who is collecting data for her PhD thesis on the challenges faced by early-career researchers in the country. “I found everything I expected, but more so,” she says.

The national survey ran online from March to June 2019; it targeted people who had earned a PhD or equivalent degree within the past ten years and were working at research institutions or universities in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or medicine. The results were posted on the preprint server bioRxiv last month (K. Christian et al. Preprint at bioRxiv http://doi.org/dn8m; 2020).

Questionable practices

About 38% of respondents reported that they had been personally harmed by “questionable research practices” by colleagues within their institution, and nearly 32% by outside colleagues — results that grabbed the attention of the authors. “My gut feeling is that these are real and significant numbers,” says co-author Michael Doran, a stem-cell biologist and bioengineer at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. “If we don’t start responding as a community, we’re going to be in a bit of trouble.”

The survey didn’t define those research practices, but some respondents shared specific complaints. One wrote that the “lack of funding and the need to ‘sell’ your research often leads to many researchers fabricating and embellishing data”. Others complained that senior researchers took undue credit for the work of junior lab members.

It’s not possible to quantify the scope of misconduct from a self-selected survey, but the results point to a significant problem, says David Vaux, a board member of the Center for Scientific Integrity, a non-profit advocacy organization based in New York City.

Vaux says that Australia has no mechanism for independent investigations into claims of scientific misdeeds. He notes that many other countries have established government bodies for such oversight. For example, Sweden set up a national office of research integrity after high-profile surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was let go by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 2016. The institute failed to renew Macchiarini’s contract following accusations of false reporting and scientific negligence related to experimental artificial-trachea transplants in which some patients died.

“The Swedish government realized that institutions aren’t capable of policing themselves because there are too many conflicts of interest,” Vaux says. “It will probably require a scandal of that size before [Australia] takes any action.”

Work culture

Nearly one-third, or 32%, of survey respondents reported being dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied at work. Christian believes that much of the dissatisfaction probably stems from the prevalence of short-term contracts. “Early-career researchers are like cannon fodder,” she says. “They’re used for a few years while they’re cheap. They’re dispensable.”

In a similar vein, 60% of respondents said they had been negatively affected by a lack of support from institutional leaders. Vaux says that most early-career researchers in Australia are funded by external grants and other forms of ‘soft money’ that do not include paid salaries, not by their home institutions. He adds that established scientists are often too concerned about their own job security to truly mentor the next generation. “Most principal investigators are treading furiously to keep their heads above water,” he says.

The survey’s authors note that Australian science could suffer if these issues are not addressed. Pressures compromising training and career progression “may contribute to a decay in research quality”, they write.

“The soft-money aspect of the culture is always a challenge,” says Drew Dawson, a psychologist at Central Queensland University in Adelaide. “I didn’t get my first hard-money position until I was 53.” But he also says that respondents might not have a full picture of the state of Australian science. “Research culture varies from lab to lab,” he says. “People don’t necessarily know the diversity of opportunities that exist.”

When asked why they stay in science, many respondents highlighted the positive side of research. One wrote, “I am passionate about my work and driven to make a difference.” Another answered, “I love research! No two days are the same.”

Respondents were also asked if they found their work to be rewarding overall, and 77% answered positively. “They love what they do,” Christian says. “They’re satisfied with their work, but they’re not satisfied with their workplace.”

As a result, many respondents have felt uneasy with their career paths. Nearly 80% had considered a major change of career or position in the previous five years; nearly 20% of all respondents said they had considered leaving Australia.

“The research institutions are as good as they can be anywhere in the world,” Doran says, “but many people still have the perception that you need to go overseas.”

Nature 579, 457-458 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00687-0

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