In recent months, union movements (and the threat of mass resignations) have strongly influenced the perceptions of lobbying the Newman Government over the doctors’ contract debacle. Frequent strikes on behalf of teachers unions, police unions have also made significant changes to wage increases and structural reform. Every major profession has a union for employees. Accountants, retail, farmers, pilots, engineers, teachers, doctors and nurses. But who actually stands for scientists? Despite increasing privatisation of the science industry(http://cpsu-csiro.org.au/2013/05/21/big-choices-ahead-for-science-and-society/), regulatory bodies and funding agencies, why is it that scientists still get shelved among educators or medical technicians?
Scientists in university labs have grounded reasons to be upset with the pressures associated with cramped lab space, institutional arrangements for IP claims and competitive projects, excessive hours, student duties and additional bureaucracy. Post-doctoral students are lucky to get a full 2 year contract in Australia and therefore move to the US to undertake additional training. Concerns have been raised also regarding the development and growth of a management culture of bullying and intimidation at CSIRO. Numerous scientists from the CSIRO are now going public about these practices (http://victimsofcsiro.com/)
Of course, nobody can predict how a union movement would fair in the current political climate givenrecent examples of burocratic controversy. Instances of the ACTU scandals could bring debate and undesirable attention drawn on the scientific profession. But lets not forget that establishing a union would be a fundamental shift towards independence and self management. Presuming Australian science unions form with a balanced mix of of left and right we may see great changes to the way we tackle funding. Take for instance, the annual debate over poor funding from government agencies. A few years ago QLD scientists marched in the streets of Brisbane led by Professor Michael Good. The opposition to funding cuts was grounded on the fact that many labs had no future and the budget for science was unsustainable. At the time there was little support from health or education groups. The universities here also have a clear had a conflict of interest – so it’s down to the individual scientist to campaign among themselves. The exhausting campaign failed to maintain pressure once funding was announced – and the medical research community are back to square one.
Many unions back credit schemes and insurance for housing or investment purposes – the same approach could be used for reasonable projects. Labs can borrow for safe investment returns and setting achievable targets in a business plan. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have revolutionised charitable donations on these ideals alone. This would accelerate growth in the industry and facilitate for more freedom to innovate and research alternative, not popular science. By comparison, the NHMRC reviews spending plans for projects with the most credibility. This draconian approach is far from an equitable or sustainable cause.
A scientific union ought to strive for scientific independence and autonomy from the current government, university and other institutions and tasked with resolving the crises in funding, support and working conditions for scientists at all levels of their career.