Productivity, Industry Engagement and the PhD Workforce

You can download a copy of the speech as a PDF here.

Good m­­­­­orning and thank you for inviting me to be here.

Most of the speeches I give as Chief Scientist are like this one: opportunities to talk about issues that my colleagues and I are actively engaged in. Issues that I believe need change.

I think, we think, that the work-readiness of our PhD students, and the links between industry engagement and national productivity, are critically important matters for this country.

Prosperity is linked intrinsically with innovation and productivity. Using our most educated citizens in the most effective ways underpins these themes.

Unfortunately, there is a large divide between our most academically qualified citizens– our PhD graduates – and the industries that fuel our economy.

This gap is what sparked this conference. And I am optimistic that there is much that can and will be done as a result of the conversations had here today.

So let me begin by first taking a look at the current state of our research workforce.

To begin with, we should note that by and large, they are a successful bunch.

The National Research Investment Plan (NRIP) has much to say about the position of Australian science in the world.

It compares GERD across countries, expressed in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

Taking GERD as a percentage of GDP in order to measure our research intensity – Australia sits at 14th in the world. Not bad – though not cause for complacent comfort.

The ARC has also benchmarked the quality of Australian research in universities against world standards based on research output, measures of esteem and patents sealed.

At the two digit classification level for field of research, Australia was found to have performed at world standard (Excellence in Research for Australia rating of 3) or better, in 10 of the 12 fields of science related research.

Of course, and I say parenthetically, the world standard is no cause for complacent comfort either.

We have to be better than a standard which includes developing economies alongside well developed places like Australia.

Regardless, overall our researchers are performing well, especially in areas like medical sciences, earth sciences, genetics and environmental sciences[i].

And yet the career prospects as researchers are not all rosy – especially for those early in their careers.

In a survey of life sciences graduates last year, 16.8% of postdocs were searching for full time employment[ii] and 80% felt there was no real long-term career path[iii].

Another survey, this time of 379 medical scientists (70% of whom had a PhD), found that 73% had considered leaving research and 70% worked a second job[iv].

These sorts of results are not just confined to certain disciplines.

The latest ACOLA report[v] showed research graduates are struggling in many ways. It’s a fascinating report; I will try to summarise the main findings:

On the positive side, of 1200 researchers surveyed, most are strongly attracted by a career in research, with 48% choosing ‘very attractive’ and 32% ‘reasonably attractive’ on a five-point scale.

When invited to nominate the single best thing about a research career from a list of 6 options, respondents chose ‘the satisfaction of working on interesting and important issues’, and ‘working in a stimulating environment’.

Researchers said they enjoyed the challenge of finding solutions to intractable problems.

They are attracted by the idea of making a difference, helping people, and being able to follow a problem from conception to solution.

Although the study group might have liked their work, they did not like the employment system.

‘Uncertain job prospects’ was the primary issue, with females more concerned about this than males.

When asked to nominate what the Australian system did well or did badly from 15 options (and able to choose as many as they liked), 83% of all respondents chose ‘too much reliance on short-term contracts’.

On the ‘does badly’ side, respondents made four times as many selections, many of them to do with working conditions.

A constant theme in the results was how difficult it was to start and sustain a career in research, with short-term contracts, highly competitive funding systems and an under-resourced system with increasing workloads.

One respondent commented: “Job uncertainty is appalling, we are the most educated people in the country and we can barely provide for our families and have at most 3-4 years job stability. This is extremely stressful.”

The view that too many PhD students are accepted by universities given the number of research and teaching positions likely to be available was a persistent sub-theme in the study group.

They described the scramble for grants and positions as ‘disheartening’ and said too many people were competing for a limited number of positions.

Participants questioned the motivation of universities in recruiting students, saying the attraction is that students draw government funding and are a source of cheap labour in the laboratory or field.

These incentives lead university staff to encourage more students to undertake PhDs, to ‘crank out’ graduates even though the employment outlook in research is bleak. Especially when those students can also crank out papers.

The underlying concern was that the Australian economy lacks the capacity to absorb these graduates.

A question asked often by respondents was: How many PhD graduates does Australia need?

But that question presumes that our PhD graduates will only go on to work as employees in academia and research institutions.

This presumption might have substance: but such a presumption, in my view, is hurting us because, of course, it influences how we prepare those students.

We still hear too often (here and abroad) that the primary, more often than not implicit, apparent purpose of much of STEM education including at the level of PhD is aimed at producing people like us.  Preparing people, from early undergraduate years through PhD, with one career objective in mind.

Business, on the other hand, seems to believe that the content of a degree is more important than the process of learning that underpins the content. You did physics?  We don’t need physics.

Perhaps then, it should be no surprise that Australia has one of the lowest numbers of researchers in business enterprises in developed nations. And I will come back to these numbers shortly.

Whereas we have just over 3 researchers in business per 1000 workers, Finland has almost 14.

Canada, perhaps our most similar country by population, GDP and geography, has 7. Similar numbers are found in Germany, Austria and France [vi]. PhD graduates are some of our nation’s most creative citizens.

They have skills in problem solving, project management, working within tight budgets and answering and developing innovative solutions to novel questions.

The PhD process helps them to develop analytical, creative, independent and driven personalities.

These are skills that are intrinsically valuable to businesses and yet most industries in Australia are uninterested in employing PhD graduates.

We need to add a dimension: to train our graduates in a way that gives them upfront career options.  To follow a research career, or one in the broader economy because businesses will see them as valuable assets with high levels of skill and creativity.  It might even help to break down cultural barriers between industry and academia.

The recent GE Innovation Barometer found that 84% of businesses in Australia thought that aligning students’ curricula with the needs of business was one of the top four priorities needed to focus on to support innovation[vii].

This is probably due partly to the fact that only 59% think that local universities and schools provide a strong education model for tomorrow’s innovative leaders[viii].

Comparatively, in Germany, 72% think the universities provide a strong model for future innovation, and in Canada the figure is 73%[ix].

The UK, who has a similar percentage to Australia of researchers in both the total workforce and in industry, also had similar results in models for future innovation, with only 51% saying their universities prepared graduates well enough[x].

So to refer to the levels of researchers in business I mentioned earlier, there may be a link between the number of researchers employed in industry, and the perception industry has of universities’ ability to prepare their graduates.

Where the perception is low, so too is the employment of researchers in industry.  Or put the other way: because employment of PhD graduates is low, so must be the perception of their usefulness in that broader economy.

Is this perception a cultural problem, or are we not preparing our PhD graduates adequately for the workforce?

I think it is a combination of the two, and I think both problems are issues pertinent to the future prosperity of Australia.

Which is why I recently provided advice on actions that governments could take to enhance innovation in Australia.

To form this advice, I wrote to 63 organisations, peak bodies and individuals seeking their answer to the question:

What are the top breakthrough actions that the Commonwealth and state/territory governments, research agencies, universities and the business community can take to utilise fully Australia’s substantial research capability to contribute to national productivity growth through innovation?

Organisations approached included federal government departments, the Business Council of Australia (BCA), Australian Industry Group (AIG), science and research agencies and the learned academies.

Of course, the process reveals a lot about our prevailing culture: incremental, small scale, pigeon-holed and defensive.

But I can assure you that there was strong support from all stakeholders to increase workplace opportunities for STEM students.

Such opportunities are currently in place in a few organisations and universities around Australia, but the scale is small. The AMSI Intern program is one such shining example, as are the Engineering Australia undergraduate cadetships and the ATN industry training centre in mathematics.

But if we are to provide students with a taste of working in business and industry; if we are to encourage education providers to design programs that enable graduates to work easily and willingly in many different sectors of the economy; and, if we are to change the prevailing cultures, we need scale.

A sort of scale where a large percentage of the 56 000 incoming STEM undergraduates could expect a semester long work-related placement or project for credit as part of their course.

STEM education must provide for a range of career options, including within the academic, business and government sectors.

To do this, I believe we need a two pronged approach.

Firstly, we need to restructure doctoral education to include a broader skill set – which currently is neither mandated nor explicitly encouraged in the research sector.  The old-style apprenticeship model that served many in this room well – including me – is no longer what we need unchanged in this country.

Of course, the PhD is a research degree and must continue to be well grounded in the methods (and ethics) of research.  It is the method that helps develop the skills of analysis and debate, of observation and an appreciation of evidence and not ‘belief’, of establishing hypotheses and testing them, of pursuing knowledge in order to increase understanding while knowing about the transient nature of much of our knowledge.

But our complicated world needs more.

We do need to take the time to develop additional skills that will help prepare the graduate for multiple opportunities.

This is being recognised internationally as a valuable addition to PhD programs. For example Research Councils UK has distributed approximately £20 million each year for the last decade to research institutions to offer doctoral researchers 2 weeks training per annum in generic skills.

Secondly, we need businesses to engage more with research universities by providing work placements, internships or commercial fellowships, providing input on curricula and considering co-supervision.

We also need to give our students the opportunity to undertake business-related research projects and give them direct experience of the workplace.

This gives them valuable additional skills, while simultaneously adding value to the workplace.

We need to ensure that Australia’s doctorates have the skills to engage in high-quality research and make productive contributions in a wide spectrum of professional roles, not just as academic researchers.

I believe governments share some of the responsibility, both in helping to shift the prevailing culture in STEM fields, and in graduate degree reform.  But I also believe that it is a shared responsibility.

It is immensely frustrating to hear some employers grumble about what the government is not doing – as they express unwilling to share a role that will make a difference because of its scale.

We need actions that will encourage greater collaboration. We need actions that will break down cultural barriers between business and research sectors.  And we need them now.

And these actions need support – from both sides.

Thank you.

[i] HAS p 152

[ii] Powell K. The Postdoc experience: high expectations grounded in reality. Science, Science Careers. Aug 24 2012; 992-996

[iii] Kavallaris et al. Perceptions in health and medical research careers: the Australian Society for Medical Research Workforce Survey. MJA 2008; 188(9):520-524

[iv] Ib id

[v] ACOLA report

[vi] Data from Westy – updated OECD scorecard from OPS2 (Pettigrew)

[vii] GE Barometer – slide 61

[viii] Ib id slide 94

[ix] Ib id slides 88, 91

[x] Ib id slide 89