So, my very first real post on my much neglected blog will be a reflective piece on the discussions of HDR (higher degrees by research) training in Australia we had at SciPath13.
After getting up on stage at SciPath12 this time last year and stating ‘You can tell I have had transferable skills training during my PhD, I brought my own coloured pens for the flip chart task’, I was unmasked as a rare beast.
Why was I so rare? It boiled down to the fact that I had all my post grad training in the (12 years) I spent away from my native Oz in the UK. I happened to gain both an MRes and PhD from the University of York Biology department, starting in Sept 2003 and ending in March 2009. This was immediately following the publication and initial implementation of the Roberts Review in 2002. The Roberts Review was in response to pressure, mainly from the industries that needed better SET (science, engineering and technology) workers, to broaden the training. According to Vitae ‘The government responded positively to Sir Gareth Roberts’ report SET for Success, providing funding of just under £150M in the 2002 Spending Review to the research councils to increase stipends, length of doctoral programmes and provide training for their funded researchers. This also included providing improved career prospects for research staff, including the creation of 1000 academic fellowship positions.’ Recent evidence of the impact of the policies then implemented was published in 2011.
In York,the early attempts to get members of the traditional academic staff (complete with beards) to teach us newbies about project planning, time management and personal effectiveness were clumsy and resulted in much cocky scorn from us, the golden children of science. But then the funding for the ‘quaternary industry’ of HDR training kicked in and suddenly the University could hire external providers (much like the Brisbane based Kerstin Fritsches Post Doc Training). The one that we were required to do was GRADSchool and I managed to do it in bits and pieces as a ‘beta tester’ during my Masters and PhD.
We also had an on site Graduate Training Coordinator, the first (and current) one employed in during my second year. Hilary Jones has done a fabulous job in the intervening years, taking into account feedback from students and incorporating different streams into the program for those with different career trajectories. I am still trying to convince my employer, Deakin University, to fly her over to run some intensive programmes for our HDR students.
Why did the UK universities start these types of activities after the Roberts Review? It may have had something to do with edicts from the Research Councils UK (RCUK), the strategic partnership of the UK’s seven Research Councils. These bodies fund most research and research training in the UK, to the tune of £3 billion per year. So I guess if it is imposed (and funded) from above, the users of the money were forced to come to heal. The outcomes expected for HDR trainees (like me) is encapsulated in the Research Development Framework that was presented by Tony Peacock, Head of the CRC association, as the minimum standards in their training programme. I was tweeting one of the students from Deakin in the audience, to say ‘Remember when I showed these same slides to you guys in our department this time last year?’ . The feelings of déjà vu were strong! I now incorporate the ideas from the RDF in my teaching, from the importance of ‘soft skills’ to my first year Medical Biotech undergrads at Deakin, to the careers sessions I have been asked to do for our HDR students in the School of Medicine.
The opening of EMCR Forum’s Science Pathways 2013, during the now traditional ‘stop begging for money’ speech from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Chubb, he made it very clear that Australia lacks any kind of coherent and strategic plan for advancing scientific research….and hasn’t had one for some time (even when we had a science minister!). And as my mind exploded with the calculations of bureaucratic waste in dissipating the Australian research effort over 14 portfolios and 79 departments, I felt powerless. Powerless to even make a dent in the established feudal system that still seems to be entrenched.
Thankfully, the next speaker, Prof Alan Finkel, was more upbeat and gave an inspiring talk about innovation and engaging with industry. It is my hope that if more of the ‘establishment’ (Universities, the CSIRO, CRCs, Institutes and Research Councils) band together and put pressure on to change the research funding and training landscape in a strategic way.
The government within its rights to demand a trade off. Again, this happened in the UK and I was interviewed when a final year PhD student at York when the BBSRC came to launch the RCUK ‘Excellence with Impact’. And yes, as you would expect, there was the howls of outrage from the Professors in the meetings – the ‘Blue Sky Science’ argument, mostly. I have decided to put a dollar in a jar every time I hear that phrase from now on, I could fund myself to do some research after a while!
But if we want the ‘win-win’ situation for science in Australia, we may have to start to judge the potential impact of our research from the perspective of our biggest stakeholders, the tax payer.