Australian academics hunker down as pandemic rages

Scientists less likely to risk switching jobs despite rising fatigue, flagging morale and gender equity going backwards

October 10, 2021
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Australian scientists and researchers are hunkering down amid the Covid-19 pandemic, less inclined to change jobs despite mounting fatigue and plummeting morale.

New research has found that 10 per cent of Australian scientists changed jobs over the 12 months to June, down from 12 per cent before the pandemic’s emergence. And women are now 18 per cent less likely than men to say they plan to permanently leave the science workforce – unlike a year ago, when they were 38 per cent more likely to want to go.

An annual survey of scientists’ pay and employment intentions suggests that rather than triggering mass job losses, Covid has imposed a degree of stability. Despite recent claims that layoffs are accelerating in universities, with some 35,000 positions disappearing over the year to May, the latest survey – which covers scientists in industry, government, hospitals and public research institutions as well as universities – found that just 2.6 per cent had been “terminated”.

The same proportion said that their contracts had not been renewed, with some overlap likely between the two groups.

But while at least 95 per cent of the 1,000-plus respondents remained in the science workforce and mostly in the same jobs, many did so under protest. Sixty-three per cent said that staff morale had declined over the previous year, up from 46 per cent in last year’s survey, while reported levels of fatigue rose from 55 per cent to 71 per cent.

Academics also reported that pay rates were stagnating, with median salaries rising 1.5 per cent over the year – down from 2.2 per cent last year, and less than half the rate of inflation. Scientists’ average hours on the job increased by 2 per cent and overtime by 23 per cent, much of it unpaid – particularly in universities, where four out of five employees said that they received no compensation for working additional hours.

The report is compiled annually by representative groups Science & Technology Australia (STA) and Professional Scientists Australia. Twenty-five per cent of respondents said that  were employed under short-term contracts, almost half of them paid by the hour.

STA chief executive Misha Schubert said that better job security was paramount. “Scientists will hit breaking point and just walk away if we don’t fix this broken system of insecure work,” she said.

STA president Jeremy Brownlie said that the “pincers of the pandemic and precarious work” were taking a toll. “Australia’s scientists have prevented a vast number of deaths in this pandemic, yet our country isn’t supporting them nearly well enough in return. We’re seeing rising levels of fatigue, a bleak drop in morale and widespread job insecurity,” he said.

The survey suggests that gender equity in science has slid into reverse, with women earning an average of 17.2 per cent less than men – compared to 17.1 per cent last year and 13.8 per cent the year before. Almost 42 per cent of women said they had experienced gender bias or discrimination over the past three years, up from 41 per cent in 2020 and 38 per cent in 2019.

But academics generally fared better than scientists working outside universities, earning a median A$144,445 (£77,628) a year – 21 per cent more than the average respondent. University staff reported bonuses roughly three times as high as those pocketed by the typical scientist.

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