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The Health and Medical Research Gig Economy and how to fix it (by Professor Joo-Cheong Tham & Dr Martin Stebbing)

15th August, 2022

This latest guest contribution on the Labour Law Down Under Blog is by Professor Joo-Cheong Tham of Melbourne Law School and NTEU National Councillor; & Dr Martin Stebbing, Florey Institute and Branch President, NTEU Research Institutes Branch.

With their high status, public prominence and grant funding, it is easy to see health and medical researchers as a privileged class.

Beneath the glitz, however, are disturbing realities.

A recent Age investigative report by Ben Scheidners has exposed ‘(a) high-status ‘gig economy’ where universities are ‘the next Uber’. This report, which we pitched and facilitated under the auspices of the National Tertiary Education Union, has exposed workplaces where job insecurity is the norm, often with rolling one-year contracts. The result is:

·         widespread exploitation (mainly through excessive (unpaid) working hours)

·         wastefulness (months spent annually on grant applications rather than research);

·         unsafe work practices (bullying; harassment; long working hours);

·         a disproportionate impact on women and mothers; and

·         a talent exodus from the sector.

Research is inevitably a casualty with the Age editor warning that ‘(s)cientific research (is) too important to die by a death of a thousand cuts’.

Why is there such a gig economy and what can be done to fix it? We tackle these questions with illustrations from health and medical research at Melbourne University.

The broken funding system

A main culprit is certainly the competitive grant system. The investigative report documented how research funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has declined in real terms with Australia’s spending on research and development now comparing poorly against other OECD countries. Low success rates in grant applications (around 10%) mean that countless hours are wasted writing and perfecting unsuccessful applications. Many worthy projects are also not funded; Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty said in the report that  ‘a healthy system would fund 30 to 40 per cent of applications’. Alongside are the systematic biases in the competitive grant system including under-representation of women as NHMRC grant applicants and holders.

All this raises a key question: should research be funded through a competitive grant system?

Higher education expert Professor Andrew Norton has suggested abolishing the ARC system and redirecting its funding to block funding of universities, a reform he argues will allow academics to spend more time on research and less on seeking funding.

Norton’s argument – radical though it may seem to some – chimes in with Doherty’s call to ‘go back to the basics’. Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Wood has also expressed similar sentiments in her National Press Club address, ‘Research to Recovery’.

Universities as factories of insecurity

Yet blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the competitive grant system. Indeed, the grant system is not even mainly to be blamed for the research gig economy. If researchers are treated as gig workers, it is because their employers, universities, treat them as such.

At Melbourne University, two institutional decisions have constructed an internal gig economy in relation to health and medical research:

·         Funding research positions principally through competitive grants.

·         Making the responsibility to secure competitive grants primarily that of individual researchers.

These decisions are by nature choices made. With the first decision, different choices could have been made and, in fact, are made in other parts of the University. Research positions could be funded  to provide better job security, for instance, through a combination of block funding, investment income, philanthropic funding as well as competitive grants; there could also be a teaching component to these positions funded by student income. Such funding arrangements could have avoided health and medical researchers being caught up in what the investigative report aptly terms a financial and scientific lottery’.

The gap between the salary funded by NHMRC grants and actual salary costs could also be automatically covered by the University (as is the case in some parts of the University). Placing the responsibility on individual researchers to cover this gap has increased job insecurity (with shorter contract terms) and also strong pressure not to apply for promotion as salary costs will increase (a form of wage suppression). Some researchers have been told that they are promoted at their peril and, in fact, warned that they might be promoted out of a job.

With the second decision, alternative choices are less apparent but nevertheless present. Even when there is heavy reliance on competitive grants, more collective approaches can be put into practice. For instance, schools, departments and disciplinary groups could take a cohesive approach to grant applications that aims at continued funding of all staff  positions within the area; indeed, this is what has happened in the past with several departments at Melbourne University.

These two institutional decisions produce the hyper-individualisation of risk at the heart of the health and medical research gig economy. Such hyper-individualisation is often justified by two corrosive beliefs. There is, firstly, a social Darwinist perspective that sees the competitive grant system as producing the best researchers through the survival of the fittest (contrary to all the demonstrated flaws of the grant system); and secondly, the counsel of despair of TINA (There Is No Alternative).

A two-pronged approach

There are, of course, alternatives, ones that can better produce an effective research ecosystem and a skilled research workforce. Research funding should be considerably increased (both in terms of block funding and competitive grants). Many have made suggestions as to how the funding of research can be improved (including for NHMRC grants) and how universities can better support their health and medical researchers.

A two-pronged approach that tackles government funding and university practices is, therefore, necessary. This approach should also be anchored in three overlapping contexts. The first is the problem of insecure research work in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) of which the health and medical research gig economy is a sharp expression. Second, the workforce strategy of insecurity apparent at Melbourne University and the rest of the sector. And third, the crisis of legitimacy engulfing universities with university staff seeing management as exploitative; students viewing universities as interested mainly in money-making; and the broader community and governments perceiving universities as self-serving.

Enshrining job security

An essential reform is establishing job security as a central principle of university policy, funding and practice.

There is already considerable momentum behind this. The federal Australian Labor Party government has committed to amending the Fair Work Act so that job security is one of its objectives. There is a push for job security to be a guiding principle of the federal government’s Universities Accord. The reportage by Ben Schneiders has led to both the federal and Victorian Education Ministers publicly committing to addressing insecure work. 

The Senate Select Committee on Job Security has also recommended that universities adhere to targets for continuing employment (established in consultation with workers and the National Tertiary Education Union) as a condition of public funding. This recommendation is at one with the federal government’s proposed Secure Australian Jobs Code which seeks to ensure that public funding ‘support(s) secure employment’. Another recommendation of the Senate Select Committee on Job Security is for job security to be an objective of government funding. Implementing this recommendation will mean significant reconfiguration of research grant funding.

At Melbourne University, the National Tertiary Education Union is bargaining for increased job security. A central claim is establishing continuing employment as the norm with a target of a minimum of 80% of the university workforce (both in terms of headcount and full-time equivalent) in continuing employment by 31 December 2024.

How will universities respond to the push for job security? Will they be dragged into providing secure work for their staff through increased regulation, deepening their crisis of legitimacy? Or will they seize the opportunity to reinvent themselves in a way that better serves their workers and the community?

All this remains to be seen.

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