Science undervalued, says Otago academic

Better job security is needed if more bright young people are to be persuaded to take up careers in science, University of Otago scientist Associate Prof Allan Blackman says.

"If we're going to encourage them into that, it really is our duty to make sure there's something at the end of it," Prof Blackman said in an interview this week.

If New Zealand was to develop a more prosperous "knowledge economy", more scientists and technicians were needed.

A higher level of "science literacy" was also needed in the community, so people could better understand many topical issues, ranging from global warming to using fluoride in water supplies, he said.

Many senior New Zealand scientists have been critical of a demoralising lack of career security for bright young researchers, with prominent space physicist Sir Ian Axford once complaining that many scientists were funded like "seasonal workers".

Some New Zealand scientists have switched to more secure non-science careers, or shifted overseas because of the uncertainty arising from short-term, highly contestable research grants, which can quickly dry up.

"That's a problem. It's something we need to look at if we're going to stop our best and brightest going overseas," Prof Blackman said.

Prof Blackman, of the Otago chemistry department, gave a talk at the university this week as part of a series of "distinguished communicator" lectures.

He has written a column, titled "Chemistry Matters" in the Otago Daily Times for the past seven years, and this was also the title of his lecture.

New Zealand had limited resources but more funding was needed, and other steps had to be taken to ensure that tomorrow's scientists were not left in career limbo after their funding dried up, he said.

The recent establishment of the Otago University Science Communication Centre and the Otago Museum's "fantastic" Discovery World science centre reflected growing efforts to improve science communication with the public.

Asked about an often-repeated criticism of scientists as poor communicators, Prof Blackman said there was "a grain of truth" in that, but many Otago scientists were now putting much more effort into passing on the results of their research.


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