Let me ask you to make a guess. What proportion of Australia's research workforce would you say is staffed by postgraduate students?
One in 10? A quarter? Maybe even as much as half?
In fact, postgraduate students make up well more than half of Australia's university research workforce - or almost six in every 10 people in those jobs. That's a surprise, right?
The full extent to which our national research effort relies on this vast hidden army of researchers is not in clear public view.
Yet these are the people who do much of our front-line scientific labwork and fieldwork. They run the tests. Take the samples. Conduct the early analysis and run the mathematical models.
The huge volume of work they do enables our established and senior career researchers to create Australia's world-leading rate of research published relative to our population size.
They're our best kept secret.
Another little-known fact is how incredibly cost-effective they are as part of the research workforce.
Postgraduate students exist on modest stipends of $28,092 a year. Not much, right?
These stipends are funded partly through the Research Training Program run by the federal Department of Education and partly by universities themselves. A scholarship recipient might receive some money from the Australian government, and a small top-up from the university or industry partner.
With every one of these research postgrads helping to propel our national research effort, Australia gets incredible value for money.
On cue, an alarming report released by Australia's Chief Scientist this week has shown our research sector is under severe strain. It warns Australia's research workforce will be severely damaged by the knock-on effects of this pandemic - and that damage will continue to be felt for years to come.
The rapid response paper warns that up to 21,000 jobs are expected to be lost from Australia's national research effort over the coming years.
PhD students and master's students won't have jobs to go to after they graduate. Casual research jobs - which keep science running in our country - are expected to start disappearing.
Some research postgrads risk losing up to six months of precious research work because their labwork or fieldwork has been put on hold.
This is a tragedy, because they are the future of Australia's research system - and we need to work even harder to protect them through the tough times ahead.
It is in Australia's strategic national interest to do so, as part of our plan for economic recovery. It also fits squarely with the government's push to develop greater sovereign capability.
If we don't support these graduate students through the current crisis, we risk losing irreplaceable research and scientific expertise, either through non-completion or attrition overseas. And that will have long-term consequences for Australia's ability to outsmart future threats.
The good news is that it wouldn't be expensive for government to throw these postgraduate research students a lifeline.
Pre-COVID-19, universities had the capacity to extend PhD programs up to four years.
During the pandemic, the government has relaxed the rules to allow scholarships to be extended to four and a half years - but there's no extra government funding to pay the stipend for the period of any extension. This could help our current students, but only at the expense of future students.
So here's an idea.
If the government sought to send a powerful signal about the value of science and research, and show its commitment to the brilliant young STEM researchers in our next generations, it could announce a one-off boost in the October budget to fund an extension of postgraduate scholarships.
Such a one-off boost would cost around $500 million, and support up to 66,455 of our next generation of research stars.
This is an investment that will deliver returns straight away, as their projects find cures and vaccines, test technology and make our world safer and more sustainable.
But it will also pay us handsome dividends in the many years and decades ahead - when those students go on to become research leaders in industry, academia and government.
They're our best down payment on being as ready as we'll need to be to face the next world-stopping crisis - and stop it in its tracks.
- Associate Professor Jeremy Brownlie is the president of Science & Technology Australia, the peak body for the nation's science and technology sectors.