For all the government’s rhetoric about supporting innovation, the 'bleak' reality of working as an Australian scientist has been painted in stark relief as crushing fatigue and plummeting morale leave professional scientists questioning their longevity in what a key industry figure calls a “broken system of insecure work”.

Fully 70.6 per cent of the scientists responding to the newly released Professional Scientists Employment and Remuneration Report said their fatigue levels had increased over the past year – up from 54.6 per cent in 2020.

Of the respondents, 62.5 per cent said staff morale had declined in their organisation over the past year – compared with 45.8 per cent the year before – while 29.4 per cent said their organisation’s overall productivity had fallen over the past year.

“Australia’s scientists are overworked, exhausted, and morale within their organisations is plummeting,” said Jill McCabe, CEO of industry group Professional Scientists Australia (PSA), said as the report highlighted pervasive overwork and underfunding across a sector that had struggled to bear the added pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the last 18 months as we’ve battled through the pandemic, we’ve relied on our scientific community more than ever before [and] we owe them a considerable debt of honour for their vital work,” McCabe said, adding that the challenges of the pandemic “have taken an extraordinary toll”.

Scientists are working gruelling hours, with mining and exploration scientists reporting working an average 54.7 hours per week – plus an average 12.7 hours of overtime – with teaching and training scientists putting in a combined average of 60.1 hours’ work and overtime every week.

Across all fields, scientists reported working an average 52.1 hours per week due to what one respondent called “crazy” workloads with “many, many extra hours required”.

“Lower pay with high workloads and increased stress in comparison to other fields is a big issue,” another agreed.

Widespread financial stress

Compiled by PSA and Science & Technology Australia (STA), the survey included scientists working in agricultural and food sciences, aquatic, biological, chemical, geographical, mathematical, medical, ecological, and other disciplines.

Two-thirds reported cost-cutting in their workplaces over the past 12 months, with 42.4 per cent calling out insufficient skills development, a third reporting a decline in the number of scientists in decision-making roles, and 29 per cent reporting less science-driven innovation in their workplaces.

Survey respondents reported widespread stress from the use of fixed-term contracts that, on average, only guaranteed employment for 18 months at a time – with 44.4 per cent of respondents reporting working on hourly contracts that averaged just six months of employment.

“Working as a scientist in Australia is not worth the difficulties you face during your study years,” one respondent said. “The pay is not that great and does not reflect the amount of labour and time scientists usually invest to obtain a university degree.”

Despite the work such scientists are doing to advance Australia’s most innovative and important industries, just 46.7 per cent of respondents said they are satisfied with their current level of remuneration – down from 53.4 per cent last year – and 35.5 per cent were dissatisfied.

Fewer than half of surveyed microbiologists, forestry scientists, biologists, environmental scientists, biochemists, computer scientists, medical scientists, food scientists, metallurgists, manufacturing scientists and surveyors said they were satisfied with their current remuneration – with some noting that pay is failing to keep up with CPI and 46.6 per cent of respondents agreeing that their remuneration is falling behind market rates.

Taking measure of Australia’s innovation

“My colleagues are leaving in droves due to lack of job security, one-year contracts, no chance ever of a permanent job and the requirement to do at least 10, if not 20, hours a week of unpaid work,” one respondent said.

That’s hardly an endorsement of erratic government policies that have left the sector struggling for certainty over the past decade.

Despite the efforts of Malcolm Turnbull’s government to paint Australia as an ‘innovation nation’ through initiatives such as the underfunded National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), Australia has languished in World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) innovation rankings.

A 2017 policy vision for 2030, which was supported by senior scientists, aimed to “enhance the national culture of innovation” – but its vision was diluted when the Morrison government floated and then reversed mooted cuts to R&D investment support.

This year, the government renamed statutory board Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) to Industry, Innovation and Science Australia (IISA), promoting the change as “indicative of the Government’s emphasis on ensuring that innovation policy is directed towards benefitting Australian industry”.

The new figures suggest that those rhetorical benefits have rung hollow for the scientific complex that forms the backbone of Australian industry.

It’s not the first time the intense stresses on Australia’s scientific community have been laid bare: last year, a similar survey identified widespread employment uncertainty and career stress, while another found that women were increasingly likely to walk away from science careers.

“There’s a huge risk that many more of our brilliant scientists will hit breaking point and just walk away if we don’t fix this broken system of insecure work,” Science & Technology Australia CEO Misha Schubert warned.

With 19.9 per cent of scientists indicating that they would leave the profession in coming years, Schubert said, “We need stronger investment in science and much greater job security for scientists to avert a disastrous loss of talent and pursue a science-led recovery.”