BeattsFieldworkEnhanced

One game at a time, taking nothing for granted, and not thinking about finals: the relevance of clichés to short term research contracts

By Steve Beatty

 

With spring around the corner, freshwater fish over this way thinking about swimming up a stream and making sweet love, the finals just around the corner, and the Dockers looking as promising as ever for their break through premiership (despite obvious Victorian umpire bias e.g. 25-10 frees at half time last weekend), things are looking up in the West. I was just thinking the other day how much I love my job and should really pinch myself more often on how good life really is. Everything that follows is therefore (blatantly) a whinge from a first-worlder.

The website creator (a mate, hereon referred to as “The Creator”) recently burst my whimsical bubble and asked me to discuss some of the personal and career issues of forging ahead as a freshwater ecologist on soft money and short term contracts. Now that might suggest that he had heard me once or twice rattle on at the odd conference about how keeping one’s head above water can be challenging, a bit scary (with a young family) if not exciting and thought it worthwhile that I contribute these thoughts to this website to provide a bit of ’you’ll-never-walk-alone’ comfort to its readers. Alternatively, The Creator may just think I can be a bit of a whinger and thought it amusing to provide me the platform to highlight this. Either way, a few humble thoughts on my experience on this topic follow.

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Steve Beatty having just knocked a hundred.

This is not intended as a blame piece but more a conversation / ideas starter and I encourage feedback. It is written as a somewhat self-indulgent reflection of what it has meant to me, from both the negative and positive sides, to spend the first 8 years post-doc with no tenure and little sign of it being forthcoming. Based on my admittedly relatively limited network of fishy friends, this soft contract roundabout is clearly ubiquitous across research institutions and fields relating to ecology. Whilst I have no empirical evidence in terms of percentage of early-mid career colleagues on short term contracts, my guess would comfortably be the majority and therefore it is one that is not isolated, but at times feels isolating.

I am deliberately going to avoid (call me a coward) delving into the obvious political side of this issue particularly the government funding models that dictate university research strategies, suffice to say I do appreciate the tightness of tertiary funding and equally the fight by the union to tackle its often crippling effects of staff moral and student outcomes.

…..(insert here four month writing pause)….

I will now touch on the politics of this issue as the first budget of the new Federal Government has been handed down half way through writing this which will likely have serious, albeit somewhat unclear implications for university funding models (at least to me and also at this stage, apparently, several of the VC’s at the group of eight); particularly with regard to ‘research active’ positions such as myself (I could equally be referred to as ‘teaching inactive’). Moreover, I personally see as short-sighted vandalism of Australian science the cutting of CSIRO funding by $111 million over four years (500 jobs) and we will pay for this as a country over the long-term. Apparently, gas and mining research will be boosted and water research, biodiversity, and low emissions research wound back….say no more on priorities.

My introduction into the world of the freshwater fish scientific community was the Australian Society for Fish Biology and more specifically, its conferences. It is fair to say that many fish biologists and ecologists are a fairly eccentric bunch as evidenced by getting very, very excited about gobies, or willingly straddling a sawfish in crocodile infested waters. Whilst having only limited experience with other scientific societies, I have heard and it is my experience that this is one of the most nurturing and welcoming professional societies to new members in Australia; particularly to those rosy-cheeked students like many of us were. Most esteemed senior members of ASFB, who as a student or early career researcher are naturally looked up to based on their scientific papers, are very giving of their time to discuss research with students at the annual meetings; particularly if the student can afford to lube the chat with a bold red or a frothy ale.

It is firmly of my opinion, that it is this culture of the ASFB in welcoming often scientifically and sometimes emotionally fragile new members, that has played a considerable role in bolstering the stocks and quality (measured on a global scale) of Australian fish ecologists. The flip side of this nurturing culture would be one where senior members of the scientific community are not only unwilling to spare students a moment of their time, but publically or privately critique their work, not so much for its quality, but more driven by scientific ego. I would dearly love to say I haven’t born witness to this scenario that can ruin a young scientists self-esteem and passion to pursue a research career, but unfortunately that is not the case. Nonetheless, aside from this relatively rare situation, due to the overwhelming collegial attitude of its members I think that the stocks and quality of the populations of Australian fish ecologists are extremely strong, by and large resilient to ‘downward pressure’ (love that BS political term) on funding, and have a well-deserved strong international reputation batting well above average.

However, it is clear these populations are now severely threatened by unsustainable levels of F (funding mortality) and we are losing several ESUs. The levels of cutbacks of scientists across major state and commonwealth institutions is disastrous not only for the staff losing their jobs, but for the long-term health of our freshwater and marine ecosystems given that effective and balanced natural resource management decisions can only be made based on sound scientific data. The risk of losing such national scientific ‘capital’ that takes a generation or more to develop to such short-sighted, short term funding models is truly regrettable. A sub-lethal effect of funding droughts that I fear may increasingly occur is our primeval instinct of self-survival may serve to increase competitiveness and reduce collaborations; an outcome completely unhelpful to scientific progress and discovery. Investment in more not less funding to science (and not just medical research) should occur to ensure a sustainable, economically prosperous, smart, Australia.

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The loss of these contractual and/or tenured positions will undoubtedly lead to more researchers either leaving the profession, or attempting to get by often on a part-salary funded by soft money. I often think of this as swinging through the trees grabbing onto the next funding opportunity branch until you reach a logging coup and fall on your bum. I, as I am sure many of you do, regularly run through the what-if scenarios and contingencies relating to income and I find myself doing this more and more now I have a couple of cling gobies at home. A certain website editor of unquestionably eccentric character would have undertaken this process recently given the recent and planned slashing of CSIRO positions. I find myself thinking about Govie positions a lot and have, in the past, had a couple of offers for research scientist positions that, from time to time, I regret not taking. At least out West this would mean largely walking away from non-management based research, but this could be rewarding in terms of directly influencing those decisions that are made relating to conserving (or otherwise) aquatic ecosystems.

I see the major challenge of being on soft research money (as with any short term contracts) is finding a balance. This principally involves balancing the endless search for salary support often by pursuing and accepting work (usually consultancies) that simply will not be publishable, with the constant need to ensure one’s research profile is continually enhanced by trying to publish broadly appealing papers in respected journals that will actually be cited (by someone else). On top of this, short of not having a life outside of research, the biggest challenge is not spending 70 hours a week at your job including being away from a young family; which is partially unavoidable as a field-based ecologist. There were several years that I and a well-known colleague of mine who sports a premature hip replacement, spent ~30% of our time in the field. Now as fun and romantic as that may seem (and as enjoyable as it is to be out in a river somewhere), that is time spent away from your family and also largely precludes searching and applying for the next funding ‘branch’. Then back at the office there are the technical reports to be written (I have >80 to my name, and not all 2-pagers), meetings with clients/funding agencies, volumous amounts of ‘amateur’ (or creative) accounting to be done (remembering that even relatively small projects will have stand-alone contractual arrangements that need to be adhered to), papers to be written, students to supervise, and gear to maintain and find the money to buy in the first place.

Steve with Marron Cropped Shrunk

Steve is also suspected of dabbling in the dark arts of crayfish work

The other challenge if you are in a relatively small group, is finding enough coin to be able to employ research assistants which dramatically improves your research outputs and can snowball your funding streams as you have more capacity to complete larger projects, and also more time to apply for grants or consultancies. Our group receives no funding for technicians from the University but have, on equally soft money, managed to employ two basically full time research assistants for the past three years. Six or so years ago this was simply not a possibility ergo the 30% of time in the field with the hip replacement bloke.

Now to mention a few positives. I believe that surviving most of my post-doctoral career on self-generated income has actually had some tangible benefits in terms of my skills, work ethic and motivation. It has certainly encouraged a resourcefulness and willingness borne out of necessity to learn new skills both practical (e.g. field techniques and managing finite budgets), theoretical (coming up with ecological ideas and hypotheses to test), and analytical (there is no statistician within 500 m from where I sit). It forces you to become skilled in writing funding applications as well as extending your scientific research to as broad an audience as possible. Our group does countless community based presentations on top of those to Government and industry. This scientific extension underpins everything our group stands for and something that tenured staff (arguably) may not be as motivated to undertake.

I guess when a senior tenured academic advises you to be ‘very thankful’ for a (previous) three year funding arrangement 30:70 (the 70 part I find) it is hard not to be a touch jaded and unappreciated. My top tips to those soft-money freshwater fishos out there: Make time to plan, keep plugging, keep trying, keep growing your skills, and keep promoting your work as widely as possible. Most of all, see life’s forest for the trees, try and find your balance, and remember you are not alone. There will always be plenty of shoulders at the next conference to cry on because, like the climate in south-western Australia, research funding is only getting drier.

Another good read on the topic is:

http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/04/02/essay-building-career-soft-money-position

 

 

Editor’s note: Dr Steve Beatty is a perpetual Post doctoral Researcher at Murdoch University. He is the expert on the effects of groundwater-surface water interaction on freshwater fish life history and population processes in the south Western Australia region. His work on Tandanus bostocki is a substantial and impressive piece of fish research (see Beatty, et al. 2010. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 19, 595–608).