The New Zealand International Science Festival, held every two years in Dunedin, has just finished. Two of the themes that struck me from meetings and conversations during the week of the festival were insecurity in scientific careers and the importance of flexible working for women in science.
The theme of insecurity in scientific careers included not just insecurity of funding but also insecurity due to changes in priorities. Insecurity of funding affects almost everybody in science: post-docs on fixed-term contracts, researchers with open-ended contracts who will be paid only if they bring in sufficient funding, and group leaders with permanent positions who want to ensure continued employment for their group members. Insecurity due to changes in priorities includes insecurity due to funding being withdrawn from a particular area as distinct from a specific proposal failing to gain funding, re-structuring, and cuts to R&D to compensate for losses incurred as a result of disastrous decisions in other parts of a company. This type of insecurity is particularly difficult to deal with as high achievers are vulnerable as well as everyone else.
The festival included a ‘Women in Science Breakfast’, which aimed to give secondary school girls the chance to hear and meet women working in science. One of the speakers in her tips for a successful career in science stressed how important it is to take at least six months maternity leave and go back to work part time so you go to work refreshed and enthusiastic rather than depleted and exhausted.
Now, who is going to feel comfortable taking time off for maternity leave or working part time in a climate of insecurity? I once heard a talk in which the speaker advocated applying for every fellowship going. Afterwards one woman in the audience commented that she had been advised that she needed to strengthen her publication record, which should she do? The answer is both.
So, apply for all the funding going, keep producing publications, enhance your professional visibility, keep your options open in case funding for your speciality dries up and take at least six months off to have a baby and work part time when you go back to work. Is it really surprising that young women come to the conclusion that it is impossible to combine family life with a career in science?
We need funding policies that place as much emphasis on retaining good scientists as we have on attracting them in the first place.