Where have all the postdocs gone? The blockage in our science 'talent pipe'

by Jenny Nicholls / 27 October, 2017
“In rugby, Pacific Island nations sometimes lose their best to the All Blacks. Science [in New Zealand] is worse. It would be like sending all our top players overseas, while trying to field a national team made up of a youth development squad.” University of Auckland geneticist Associate Professor Anthony Poole is one of our brightest  scientists – and his frustrations are shared by a roll call of influential New Zealand researchers.

 Labs everywhere in the world are powered by “postdocs”, young scientists on short contracts with everything to prove. Most scientists kick off their careers this way after finishing their doctoral studies.

New Zealander Geoffrey Nicholls has recently finished his term heading Oxford University’s Department of Statistics. “At Oxford stats, we average one postdoc per staff member,” he says. “This is key to our productivity and research environment.”

Oxford’s online jobs website is bristling with postdoc opportunities. The University of California, Berkeley, offers 1400 postdoc positions (not all in science, of course) – so many that postdocs have their own association.

Our last government, in contrast, had dedicated funding for just five two-year postdocs each year. There are more postdocs in New Zealand than this, but numbers are pitiful by international standards, as few teams can afford them. This, in the world of science funding, is simply weird.

The US National Postdoctoral Association estimates that there are up to 91,000 postdocs in the United States. In Australia, around 600 postdocs are funded at any one time by the National Health and Medical Research Council; another government scheme funds hundreds more.

Here, after years of dwindling numbers, the rot really set in after the 2010 Budget. It slashed a scheme that funded 90 postdocs (30 each year), which the government said cost too much.

As Professor Russell Gray – who left the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland last year for a plumb directorship at Germany’s Max Planck Institute – told Kim Hill: “In the career timeline for scientists, that’s like chopping them off at the kneecaps.”

Many suspect the old postdoc funding was diverted to finance 10 annual Ruther-ford Discovery Fellowships. While these last five years, they can go to tenured professors who have secure jobs. They do nothing to keep even a tiny minority of our top doctorates in the country.

It must have been an embarrassing moment for the last government when, in 2014, close to 100 per cent of existing Rutherford Fellows (39 of New Zealand’s leading scientists) signed a plea for changes in science funding. This included a reasonable request for urgent, dedicated funding for at least 100 more postdocs per year.

“The effect of the severe bottleneck at the postdoctorate stage in the careers of young scientists is that we are inadvertently creating a place where talent has to leave.” The italics are theirs. The submission includes a graph showing our lonely outlier status in the world of science funding – and in our number of scientists and engineers. There we are, in a little bubble well to the left of everyone else. There is one other country next to us. It is Greece.

But is this really having an impact on New Zealand research and our allure to international students?

The answer appears to be yes, to both questions. New Zealand pumps out research papers, but the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment quotes statistics showing they are seldom cited by other researchers in leading publications. Journals like Nature, Science, and The Lancet give a research team’s work the most impact. “New Zealand’s system,” said a government paper on science funding circulated at the end of last year, “produces a high level of outputs relative to investment, but those outputs are possibly of a lower academic impact relative to global counterparts.”

In other words, we play a lot of games, but we don’t win many. And we may be putting some of our brightest off playing the game at all.

“I’m worried that the sense of futility and hopelessness is rapidly trickling down to our postgraduate students,” says Otago biochemist and Rutherford Fellow Wayne Patrick. “PhD students see their friends struggling to find jobs after they finish their doctorates. Our top honours and master’s students are looking at other options, instead of even starting a PhD.”

And international student applications to NZ universities are down, because they are slipping down ranking tables.

The blockage in the talent pipeline is a big worry for teams with older scientists, too. “[In 2010] the supply of talent for research teams like mine was cut off,” says principal scientist Chris Hollis of GNS Science, whose team investigates the geological dimension of climate and environmental change. “We really struggle with succession planning now because we have several staff close to retirement who still need funding, but we have no way to team them up with younger talent”.

Like rugby, science is pitilessly, thrillingly international: our research teams must foot it against the Oxfords, the MITs, Berkeleys and Max Plancks in the scramble for talent, papers with impact, reputation. But we are outsourcing our research work to students – and then kicking them out of the country at the very point in their lives they want to marry, have children and settle down.

“The lack of postdoc funding is a massive hole in our science system that has a negative influence across all levels of New Zealand science,” says Rutherford Fellow Quentin Atkinson, fresh from an Oxford postdoc, his name on a dazzling study published in PNAS (the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA) and quoted in the New York Times. “Our research labs are training up PhDs, who we lose to overseas labs.”

 Perhaps, if we had as many postdocs as Super 15 rugby players, our science might win more often.

This was published in the September 2015 issue of North & South.



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