The ivory tower is full of people

One of the great privileges of my life is to lead a research centre full of dedicated, enthusiastic and smart Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Eight, to be precise; six of them women, and all on soft money. In the current ‘freeze’ on Australian Research Council funding announcements, two of these people are waiting to hear about grants that would pay their salary in 2013, and two others are waiting on funds for projects that will allow them to do that part of their job description that is research. The cyclic nature of research funding being what it is, next year it could well be the other four who are waiting.

Their senior colleagues also wait; on the outcomes of three grants that will fund fieldwork for Honours and PhD research, opportunities for casual and fixed term research assistants (including undergraduate students getting important professional work experience), and postdoctoral jobs.

We have two people lined up at the door waiting to apply for a fellowships (i.e. salary) round that cannot even open until the current outcomes are known.

And we are just a microcosm of research centres and university departments across Australia, where at least 2000 jobs are estimated to be at risk. It’s not just scientific research, but humanities and social sciences also. In our case, pressing environmental issues demand careful social science perspectives and innovative ideas.

In other words, the ivory tower is full of people; people with partners, families, homes, lives. Research grants are not abstract things. They pay people to do work; organise projects, collect data rigorously, archive it ethically, think about the results, crunch the words and numbers, write up the findings, communicate them to the community. We’re very good at stretching the dollars, using them to seed new projects, build collaborative links and keep people fed and housed between grants. We expect to be accountable for the funds. This money goes back into the economy in a variety of ways – especially important in a regional city like Wollongong, with unemployment already high.

It is unlikely that all these grants will be successful. But people need to know. Those who miss out will take stock, build up their track records and reapply, or seek alternatives. They may need to move cities, but they need to know.

Investing in young researchers is an investment for the nation. If 2000 jobs were at risk in manufacturing, governments of all persuasions would be worried. But is anyone taking notice of a generation at risk in the university sector? A budget surplus will be a hollow victory if it means reducing intellectual capacity and throwing these highly trained people out of work, or out of the country.