Science is a ruthless and global profession. Research can occur anywhere and knowledge is quickly transferable. Jobs are advertised in a world-wide employment market and competition is ferocious. But in Australia, there seems to be a concerted push to sell science as a career. Be warned – this is an area where supply outstrips demand. It is an area with a few rock-star researchers but where most are poorly paid. So having Nobel Prize winners selling science as a career is a bit like having Russell Crowe or Cate Blanchett touring the country selling acting as a career. They are the exceptions not the norm.
Now, I have no trouble with successful scientists trying to interest school children in science. The problem starts if the government translates this into higher education policy. The government already tries to ‘pick winners’ in higher education, lowering the HECs fees for ‘in demand’ areas. Some of these areas are ‘in demand’ because most of the jobs are in poorly paid government areas (e.g. nursing and teaching). But over the university sector, government subsidies vary greatly by course. Business and law students get little subsidy. Science gets a relatively high subsidy (relative to cost). Why? Because the government seems to try and pick winners. It wants to encourage students to study in certain areas rather than other areas. However, the government’s record of ‘picking winners’ in terms of labour markets and careers is woeful. It would be better if the government simply set HECs as a flat subsidy (possibly on a percentage of cost basis) together with generous equity based scholarships.
Finally, a confession of ‘conflict of interest’. I was two years into my undergraduate science degree when I realised there were no jobs in my area and swapped across to economics. Best move I ever made!