Australian scientists fear job insecurity as morale plummets amid Covid, survey finds

By Donna Lu
Australian scientists
Australian scientists are facing job insecurity, fatigue and plummeting morale. Photograph: David Crosling/AAP

The coronavirus pandemic has had a stark impact on scientists, with widespread job insecurity, worker fatigue and plummeting morale prompting warnings many may leave the profession without more government support.

An annual survey conducted by Science & Technology Australia and Professional Scientists Australia found an increase in staff fatigue in 71% of respondents – up from 55% in 2020 – while almost two in three scientists reported a drop in morale.

The survey, conducted in June and released on Monday, found one in five scientists intended to leave the profession permanently.

Jill McCabe, chief executive of Professional Scientists Australia, said the concerning findings came at a time when “people have started to realise just what an important role scientists play in our community and in our economy”.

McCabe said while the Covid-19 pandemic may have had a general impact on scientists’ morale and fatigue, widespread job insecurity was a factor.

Of 1,275 scientists surveyed, one in four were on fixed-term work contracts, with an average contract length of 18 months. “We’d like to see scientists offered greater security in their employment rather than these short-term contracts,” McCabe said.

Job losses in the university sector have also had a significant impact on scientists. Modelling earlier this year found that at least 17,000 jobs were lost at Australian universities in the first year of the Covid pandemic.

The survey also found a gender pay gap of 17% between female and male scientists, unchanged from the previous year. It was attributable to factors including women being concentrated in less senior roles, and there being fewer women than men over 45 in the science workforce.

“What concerns me the most is female respondents who were twice as likely to say that the lack of flexible work options mean that they’ll need to move on [from science],” McCabe said.

Two in five female respondents reported experiencing gender bias or discrimination in the previous three years.

While there has been unprecedented reliance on scientific research and expertise throughout the pandemic, 40% of scientists have not had a pay increase in the last year, while 7% of scientists reported taking a pay cut as a result of Covid-19.

Respondents worked an average of 7.5 hours overtime each week, with 59% reporting they received no extra pay or compensation for overtime work.

McCabe called for more investment in science in future. “We want to see the university sector obviously rebound,” she said.

There would be challenges for government, scientific associations and communities, and the education sector, McCabe said, to “make sure that people take the profession as seriously as they have during the pandemic”.


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