Friday, August 23, 2013

pre-election science hick-ups

In most societies politicians or the people in the background of politics have a great influence on science. How much funding will go into science, what kind of research will be funded, how stressful and competitive it is to get funding, ... . Often enough these things might change when a new government is elected and the new responsible people have a different opinion about this topic than the former responsible people.
Struggling towards the election with all the more or less usual campaigning and political sandbox fights (see: Rudd vs. Gillard) Australia could be in such an "unstable" funding situation, but universities and research and science is actually not on their agenda. And even though it seems likely that we will get a change in government, nobody really expects great changes for the research funding.
However, the political situation still takes its toll on researchers. Endless amounts of hours have been sunk into writing grant applications at the beginning of the year. Usually the outcomes are announced in July or August. But for some reason the political situation hold up this process and right now nobody knows when the outcomes of the fellowship and grant applications will be made public - some time after the election, when the new government has warmed up their seats in the parliament. I'm sure all the reviewers and all the panel members already did their job and the decisions about who gets how much are already made. So why holding up the announcement? Because some not-yet-elected Minister of Science wants to give a press conference on that? Do politicians understand that other people's professional and to some extend personal lives depend on these outcomes? That they want to know if they still have a job at the beginning of next year or if they still can fund their post-docs?
I do think that Australia fosters scientific research very well and gives a lot of opportunities to get funding. But I really dislike the attitude of Australian politics to sometimes forget that their decisions have impact on people's lives and that giving them sufficient time to adapt to changes instead of changing the rules from one day to the other would create much more trust in the abilities of the government.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Whoot! Today I got my first invitation to a professorship job interview! That is quite amazing!
The non-amazing part is that they don't want to cover any costs related to this interview. Which wouldn't be a problem, if the interview was in Australia. But because it's in my home country this would mean I'd have to spend quite a bit of money for flights. And then it might be that I was just invited to fulfill their "invite more women" quota and I don't have a chance anyways.
But wouldn't both be an argument to cover my costs? Either they invite me because they actually are interested or they invite me to fulfill their quotas - both ways it would be a win-win if they'd really invite me!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Australian peculiarities I: Shower heads

I just had shower and simultaneously an idea for a slightly off-topic branch for my blog. And as the best ideas come to us under the shower - as proven by Jorge Cham with this nice drawing - the idea must be good and I'll directly turn it into reality while my hair is still dripping wet.
"Australian peculiarities" will be about all the little things that I've discovered while living in Australia and that I still find weird even after a few years of adaption time.

The topic today: shower heads
if you want to rent an apartment in an area where the last construction boom took place in the 1960s you'll find that shower heads are tightly fit on the wall at a height of about 1.6m (about 5.2 ft). Usually they can't even be turned in any way and as there is no shower hose it takes a bit of gymnastics to get all the bits of your body wet enough. Esp. for people taller than 1.8m (about 6ft) taking a shower is an act of balance and physical exercise. I've seen this type of construction in New Zealand before and I wonder: is this some kind of a Commonwealth thing? Or was the nutrition supply in OZ and NZ so bad in the 1960s that people did not grow taller than 1.6m? Does the Government want to encourage a minimum amount of muscle stretching each day? Or has the plumber guild a body height restriction rule for some reason?
If there are any theories or pieces of wisdom out there on this topic please share!

Friday, August 16, 2013

higher chances for women?

Uh, I have been really quiet for a while. Mostly because I was on conference/job hunt travel and before that it was the usual craziness to get your students on track and everything else more or less done before leaving.
Now I'm back, jetlag is pretty much conquered and I've already spend a decent amount of time in front of my office computer. The weeks away were full of different impressions, not only because I went to a really big conference so pretty much everybody was there and the whole socializing and catching up gives a colourful picture already. But the impression that stands out the most and makes me thinking a lot comes from the job-hunt part of the travel.
As the end of my fellowship slowly dawns I thought about my options afterwards, esp. the ones including getting closer to home again. One possibility to transfer back to my home country and continuing on the academic track would be if I'd applied for an early career research fellowship. The specific one is a pretty big thing and includes enough money to pay yourself, a Post-Doc and 1-2 PhD students for 4-5 years, plus money for equipment, travel and what else is needed for successful research. It's a personal award, but one needs a host professor, who'd be willing to have this person + project planted in his department. The likelihood that such a project gets funded increases if the reviewers have the impression that the hosts labs and experience fit very well to the proposed project. That's why I visited a few groups, who work in related fields, to talk to the professors, see their labs, get an impression what it would be like to work there, see if the personal chemistry fits and if they would be willing to host me. Overall, these trips were very positive and interesting for me and I see several options where to settle down with my next project (in case it gets funded). 
But there is one thing I heard at each of these visits, that makes me thinking and that is the sentence: "You have a bonus when it comes to applying for this fellowship, because you are a woman." I'm sure everybody meant this in a very encouraging way: "You should apply, because you even have a bonus which increases your personal success probability." And in the beginning I thought that this is really great for me. But by now I'm wondering if it is actually true! And if it is not true, what does this sentence really mean? Everywhere you go you hear that women in STEM fields nowadays have higher chances, because universities get asked at every project renewal why there are not more women in leading positions. And men in my age feel threatened by that. So people seem to believe, that women have higher chances to succeed. Even though in the Schools in my home country I have worked in so far there is no sign of increasing numbers of women in the permanent staff ranks - just the temporary positions are given to women quite often.
In Australia there is a huge awareness for this topic as well, but looking at the success rates for grant applications, the women chart usually shows lower numbers. And while still a third of our students up to postgrad level are female (which is a lot for a science/engineering field) the number drops to 12% for the academic staff in our School (including both fixed term and permanents). The leaky pipeline...? No sign of "higher chances" just yet.
At the moment I think the sentence "women have higher chances" is just interpreted wrong by the people who don't make the decisions. It does not mean "women have higher chances compared to men", because it does not make sense to hire a woman just because of her gender, if there is a more qualified man available.   It just means "women have higher chances compared to women 20 years ago", which maybe means that my application will not directly go in the bin but gets a decent amount of attention. And if I stick out enough it maybe even goes one the pile for the next round. But I don't think that any woman would be hired or get funded instead of a man if she is not obviously better than him - even though as a woman you get told otherwise and even though men freak out because they don't know how to compensate for the lack of "female bonus". This is all very disturbing and misleading - I hope we can settle for something a bit more honest and relaxed in the next 10 years. And if I'm wrong, I'd like to see the statistics!