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Shortages of science graduates are always in the future

By John August - posted Monday, 30 January 2012

What is the future of science in Australia ? Reports and commentaries suggest we're headed for a crisis as we suddenly run out of science graduates we need to keep Australia ticking over. Unlike science itself, however, most of the arguments are pretty vacuous.

However, before we get too critical. Yes, a better understanding of science is a good thing to have.

The disconnect between science and the population can be destructive - look at the anti-vaccination movement, alternative medicine, and various scams. Science helps us do a better job of participating in democracy. Further, as a science graduate, I can speak to the wonderful appreciation it gives of the world it gives you.


But science graduates are not the way to this goal. There's a lot of science coverage in the media, including science documentaries. Over the last few decades popular science books have become much more prominent. Taking science more seriously is the issue. You don't need qualifications to do that.

Supposedly we are going to be in shortage of qualified people, and an increase in HECS for science makes it even worse.

However, at the coalface, graduates can ask : what shortage ? Many science graduates end up working in other fields. If a squeeze eventuates, we could "recall" these graduates, much as there was a push to draw ex-nurses from other fields back into nursing.

Engineering is globalised industry - rather than employing local graduates, international firms tend to import experienced engineers from overseas and/or shift the work overseas. Some say a supposed "shortage" of engineers is a convenient excuse to import these overseas engineers, and perhaps flood the market and lower wages. Such local firms as do exist complain they train engineers for two years only to have them work elsewhere. It's all a far cry from there being an overwhelming demand suggesting a looming crisis.

There are jobs in mining, and great if you can get into that field and find it rewarding. But that doesn't say much for engineering or science *overall*.

The supposed "shortages" in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) generally are usually just "projections", with little you can actually point at. Back in 2007 DEST predicted a large shortfall by 2011. It would have forced up wages to compensate and qualified people from other fields would have been drawn back. Where are the statistics ? I'm sure it all will evaporate under close examination.


Decades ago, retiring physicists were going to cause a shortage. The sky was going to fall in. However, graduates' experience was very different. I spoke to a retired UNSW physicist who was saddened that false expectations encouraged graduates through the system so a senior physicist could be employed for a few more years. Another saw postdoctoral students "circling an airport, like a group of aeroplanes, waiting for a place to land." ( When you have a difference in supply and demand, it doesn't just affect prices - "inventory" can build up.) Graduates found it difficult to persuade job agents they suitable. Graduates didn't get what they were "sold". Many graduates in the Australian Science Communicators emailed me echoing these experiences.

Anything can be "talked up" by those at the top of the feeding chain, with a story put very different to the one experienced by those at the bottom.

Teaching jobs are not too difficult to find. However, science degrees are sold based on the grand adventure of research, something only available to a select few. For those who go down that path, it takes many years before you can do your own research. Top researchers travel around the globe seeking the best positions - we're as likely to attract such them to our universities as lose them. Not where we have a "brain drain".

The Labor ministers in power when HECS was introduced themselves obtained their degrees without HECS. Free tertiary education is a worthy goal - if we can afford it. Budgetary pressures, though, cannot be avoided. Wherever you find money, someone is going to complain - but it's fairer to share the burden. It would be self defeating to support education at the cost of a tanked economy where there's no jobs for the graduates. There's an important balance to be drawn. Maybe the fairer thing *is* to increase HECS for science degrees.

Better awareness of science is certainly a worthy goal. However, many arguments about the need for science and graduates are built on quicksand - they seem to push not the interests not of students or the general population - but rather those at the top. Let's be a bit more objective about the issue - even better, let's be more "scientific" about it.  

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About the Author

John August is the convenor of Abolish the States Collective, and of the group Sydney Shove.

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