Right climate to make move into science

IT IS a rapidly growing field, calling for bright minds and big thinkers, but there are not enough environmental and climate scientists coming through university to meet demand.

The director of the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Professor Andy Pitman, said while the need for climate scientists in academia, government institutions and the corporate world was fast increasing, ''we aren't training the next generation of students … to fill in those niches''.

The academic paths to careers in climate science vary, and specialised degrees are fairly new. But of the 2341 bachelor of science graduates and 793 science postgraduates who completed the 2010 Australian Graduate Survey, fewer than 0.3 per cent specified climate science as their field of study.

Professor Pitman said when the centre, an international research consortium of five Australian universities, advertised for postdoctoral research fellows recently, most positions were filled by overseas candidates ''because we can't find Australian graduates with the hard quantitative skills to employ''.

In a bid to boost the numbers of climate scientists, the climate change research centre at the University of NSW is offering honours scholarships to graduates. .

Professor Pitman said many students, conscious of their HECS debt, forgo science or postgraduate degrees and enter what they see as more lucrative careers in business, finance and mining, but it was a misconception that science graduates did not do well.

''Almost invariably, climate PhDs with a physics or maths background find themselves in demand overseas and with excellent salary packages,'' he said. ''This is a growing area with a small number of such specialists, making them an elite that are coming in at the ground floor of a worldwide demand, so it is a great way to fast-track a career.''

Climate systems researchers have the chance ''to pursue some very serious science that will significantly affect policy and - because the field is so new - change our fundamental understanding of climate''.

When the University of Sydney launched an environmental systems degree last year, 16 students enrolled.

The director of the university's Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Professor John Crawford, said market research showed young people were greatly concerned about the environment but ''for reasons we don't fully understand, it's difficult to recruit students''.

''For every graduate that comes out of Sydney University there's about three jobs, and pretty well-paid jobs,'' he said. ''There's no shortage of opportunities; we just have a shortage of students. The demand is only going to get bigger and the supply is not getting any bigger.''

Professor Crawford said the looming global crisis generated by food, energy and water consumption - and the closely connected issues of climate and health - required innovative solutions from broad thinkers, working across a range of disciplines.

''All of that is at the cutting edge of science and technology,'' he said. ''[Graduates] capable of thinking at that scale … simply aren't around. We need the best minds in this space now.

''We're either going to crash and burn, or clever young people are going to find solutions. Hopefully if they feel engaged and … empowered, they will skill up to make an effective contribution.''