Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The scientific brain drain

Twenty to thirty percent of our science graduates are leaving the country, according to a Waikato University marketing professor. But before the Opposition gets on their high horse about how "high" taxes are driving our best and brightest overseas, something needs to be pointed out: these people aren't leaving because of taxes; they're leaving because there are no jobs for them. Which in many ways makes it a non-problem: if there are no jobs, then their departure is (by definition) not contributing to the skills shortage. Rather we're producing a massive surplus of science graduates with nowhere to go.

Except it's not quite that simple. While there are no jobs for our science graduates today, there will be in a few years' time, as our universities and CRIs face mass cohort retirement. Unfortunately, our graduates can't wait that long: they have to keep current, or else their entire education (seven to ten years) is wasted. And so they go overseas, where there are jobs, and where their hard-earned skills can be put to use, rather than wasted in a call-centre or mindless retail proledom.

Why do we have this problem? As with so many of the problems besetting us at the moment (hospital waiting lists, an understaffed defence force, not enough police), it all goes back to a decade of systematic underfunding during the 90's. Since the break-up of the DSIR, staff numbers at our CRIs have gone one way: down. Restructurings, relocations, and natural attrition thinned the ranks of older scientists, while a virtual hiring freeze meant they were not replaced. Given the funding cuts and vagaries of five-year grants, this was a viable strategy - but it means that in five or ten years when the current staff retire, there will be problems finding enough people to take their place. Universities aren't nearly so badly off, but they have cohort problems of their own.

How can we solve this? If we don't want to face a mass shortage of scientists in a few years time, we need to start hiring them now. And this, more than anything else, will convince talented students that there is a future in science and that it is worth pursuing as a career. Unfortunately, that won't happen in the current science funding environment, and so unless the government decides to invest in the future of science in this country, it simply won't have one.


While I don't disagree with a single thing you've said, I'd be inclined to take those statistics with a pinch of salt unless I knew more about how they were generated.

I'd probably show up as a "brain drain" figure, but I have every intention of returning to New Zealand once I finish my PhD. Moving around internationally is rather a part of the lifestyle for science graduates, often to do a PhD or post-doc. I wonder how many overseas graduates have settled in NZ over the same period of time?

Posted by Chris : 11/16/2005 10:10:00 AM

Chris is right with this. I also would show up as a brain drain figure, and I too intend to return after my PhD. To get a job in academic circles in New Zealand, it is expected that you have spent some time overseas, particularly doing Post Docs.

Posted by Shaun : 11/16/2005 11:24:00 AM

True, but having done my phd, and not wanting to work as a NZ academic, as there are vanishingly few positions available, I'm overseas because there are infinitesimally few positions in NZ for me that aren't academic. I'm going to attempt to find a job there next year, but I doubt there'll be anything I'm not stupidly overqualified for.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 11/16/2005 12:21:00 PM

Lots of people choose to live outside NZ at some time - and the reasons might range from career opportunities to cheaper drugs.

I think most science grads everywhere work outside their specialisation - I've met science PhDs doing IT, sales, investment banking and working behind a bar.

The NZ economy isn't big enough to offer that much specialisation - perhaps it won't ever be. We should really expect that a lot of qualified New Zealanders will spend a lot of their career overseas - and conversely a lot of qualified people from overseas will want to work here. That isn't a bad thing - it makes for a more diverse and interesting society - and that in turn might encourage more people to stay.

Posted by Rich : 11/16/2005 07:44:00 PM