Modern Australian

We can’t let STEM skills become a casualty of COVID-19

  • Written by Cathy Foley, Chief Scientist, CSIRO

Universities and other research organisations in Australia have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May, a group led by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel forecasted severe impacts for our research workforce. These included the loss of the equivalent of up to 21,000 full-time jobs in universities this year, including around 7,000 related to research.

Read more: Universities are cutting hundreds of jobs – they, and the government, can do better

These effects are now becoming very real. Universities and other research institutions are losing income as international students disappear. Several universities have announced they will cut jobs, and plenty more are expected.

Recovering these jobs won’t be quick or easy. There will be lasting impacts on our research sector.

At the same time, however, science and technology are essential to the recovery from this crisis, and to the long-term future of our economy.

In 2019 CSIRO released our Australian National Outlook report, which identified the key areas to drive innovation to secure our future prosperity. It said we need to reinvent our industries to make us more unique and more profitable, or risk falling into slow decline. Little did we know we would already be in recession in 2020.

Future economic growth will depend on the creation of future industries such as advanced manufacturing, hydrogen, space and quantum technologies. Science, including social sciences, will also underpin the delivery of many public sector services, including water management, land management and defence.

Invest now to prepare for the future

Expertise doesn’t grow overnight. Australia’s response to COVID-19 has been led by scientists we invested in decades ago. To face the challenges of the future, we need to invest today in the people who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

Both men and women will be the leaders of the future. Evidence suggests women in STEM, who are already underrepresented, are being hit hard by COVID-19 impacts.

Read more: Chief Scientist: women in STEM are still far short of workplace equity. COVID-19 risks undoing even these modest gains

Supporting these women is a key to future success: research shows increasing the number of women in leadership positions by just 10% boosts a company’s market value by 6.6%, or an average of A$105 million. Extrapolate that across entire industries and you are going to get some big numbers.

One way forward

The best response to this crisis will vary for different organisations. CSIRO’s approach is to continue working with universities and business to run programs that grow Australia’s future STEM workforce.

Each year, CSIRO recruits around 100 graduates from STEM higher degrees as postdoctoral fellows. In the past 24 months we have recruited 155 of these, of whom just over a third are women.

This year we are making as many positions available as possible, as quickly as we can. We are currently recruiting 50 postdoctoral positions and we plan to advertise another 20 later in the year.

The challenge

Without a thriving science and technology sector, Australia will not generate the innovation that spurs economic growth.

There are many other postgraduate students looking for placements and jobs, as well as the university staff and academics who will potentially be retrenched.

These are highly skilled people and we need them in our workforce. Our challenge is to support them to be taken up in other sectors by organisations looking to boost research and development, or help them create new businesses of their own.

Continued investment in R&D during economic downturn can give industries and businesses a competitive edge.

Research by McKinsey following the 2008 downturn found organisations were reluctant to cut R&D activities, seeing them as a competitive advantage for future growth. Organisations that gained the greatest benefit from R&D expanded their programs.

With all these skilled researchers coming into the market, there is an opportunity for industry to take them on and increase business investment in R&D, which has fallen in recent years and left Australia well below the OECD average.

Read more: Can government actually predict the jobs of the future?

Either way, instead of letting this amazing workforce disappear, we have an opportunity to help them find a different pathway to impact, one that may also help Australian businesses boost the sophistication of their products at the same time. Lemons to lemonade, as they say.

We need our scientists now more than ever to help us develop the high-value industries that will secure our future jobs and prosperity.

We can’t let our future STEM skills become a casualty of COVID-19, or we will pay for it in decades to come.

Authors: Cathy Foley, Chief Scientist, CSIRO

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