Ag science just ain't sexy enough

Here’s the looming problem for New Zealand – the scientific institutions that come up with innovations to keep our primary sector industries productive and contributing huge amounts to GDP are failing to attract young kiwi talent to replace the old-timers that are retiring.

Hence we have, a few days after Fieldays, the following headline in Rural News:

Source: Rural News
Source: Rural News

It’s an interesting issue I’ve been mulling as I prepare to embark on a tour around the country as part of the Royal Society’s Emerging Researchers workshops, which have so far attracted nearly 1000 participants! The workshops are designed to give PhD and post doctoral researchers tips on navigating science funding, getting a job, communicating their science and dealing with immigration requirements. As I found out last year, the latter issue is a very important one for a good deal of the people who attend the workshops as many of them are foreigners who have come to New Zealand to study, and hopefully gain residency and a job in New Zealand.

Last year, the workshops included representatives from large agricultural science players like Fonterra, Gallagher and Fonterra, who explained how hot the competition is for the jobs they offer emerging researchers – and how they are increasingly casting the net worldwide to look for new recruits. Part of the reason for that is there’s a limited pool of young researchers in New Zealand pursuing agricultural science. That despite our biggest-earning industries being agriculture-related. So what’s the problem? According to the report in Rural News (not online) which quotes Agricultural and Horticultural Science Institute president Jon Hickford, it could largely be one of perception:

There is a perception of mud and gumboots as opposed to medical researchers saving the world, yet our role is to produce more and better food. Somehow there is the perception that food production is ‘dirty’ and not a noble cause which is weird.

Part of it also comes down to money – agricultural scientists just don’t earn the big bucks…

Rural News: Young people are aware that the best the average senior scientist with a PhD can hope for is a salary of around $100,000, whereas someone with a BA can earn a lot more as a policy analyst in Wellington.

The Government is aware of the problem – statistics released to Rural News by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology which are discussed but now published apparently show that in three Crown research institutes – Agresearch, Plant & Food and Scion, a “high proportion” of scientists are in their 50s and 60s. The answer? According to RS&T Minister Dr Wayne Mapp the shake-up of the CRIs and the science system currently underway will help. But what of the perception problem? How do you get young people excited about pursuing agricultural science. Or will we increasingly just import our ag sciences from the rest of the world?


  1. Alison Campbell

    I agree with dryak on this one. But it’s not just the agricultural science sector – there’s a big disconnect between the government’s attitude that science & technology are important to our future (reflected in TEC’s priorities for universities), & the subject choices of incoming students. At my institution education & the arts/social sciences have seen a lot of growth in student numbers over the last few years, while sciences/engineering have been stable at best (& within that area there’s been growth in engineering more than in the ‘basic’ sciences). It’s probably more complicated than looking at career options (although I agree with dryak that this is likely to be important); there’s also the issue of so many competing subjects available at school, so that – especially if they aren’t given or ignore advice – students can end up with a collection of credits that don’t meet the pre-requisites for the science subjects that they want to take when they get to us. Makes degree planning really tricky by the time they get to see me.

  2. dryak

    Or it could be that they have a look at the Agricultural science sector and see a complete lack of comittment to good basic science with an overwhelming emphasis on short-term “stakeholder-driven” research often with much lower scientific merit and make the rational choice that if they want to actually do science there are much better areas to be in. Plus the lack of support shown by the government and CRIs as evidenced by the recent “restructuring” at Agresearch which got rid of ~10% of the scientists doesn’t make it a rational career choice.

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