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So what I’m wondering about is how research positions in government run research labs with organisations like Australia’s CSIRO or America’s FFRDC labs compare with equivalent positions in academia and industry.

What are their pay and conditions like, relatively speaking? How much job security do you have? How much control do you get over your topic of research?

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    In the US, the organizations of interest would be the Department of Energy's national laboratories and other Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) under NASA, USDA, NIH, and the Department of Defense. DARPA is a funding agency that gives out grants rather than conducting research in house. – Brian Borchers Dec 8 '19 at 3:26
  • @BrianBorchers Okay, then. My mistake. Assume that I’m asking about them, then, rather than DARPA. – nick012000 Dec 8 '19 at 3:38
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    Since there haven't been other comments/answers yet, it may help to edit Brian's suggestions into your post. – Tyberius Dec 8 '19 at 4:06
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    Even within DOE there are large differences between Office of Science (Lawrence Berkeley, Argonne), NNSA (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos), and others (Knolls Atomic Power and NREL). Talk to people who work in various places, either grads of your program or at conferences. – Jon Custer Dec 8 '19 at 19:38
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So what I’m wondering about is how research positions in government run research labs with organisations like Australia’s CSIRO or America’s FFRDC labs compare with equivalent positions in academia and industry.

I work for a US Government Research Agency, so here is an answer based upon my experience (i.e., n = 1):

What are their pay and conditions like, relatively speaking?

In this US, some labs are run by contractors (e.g., some DOE labs like Sandia). Others are run by the federal government (e.g., other DOE labs). I am an employee of the US federal government. OPM describes our benefits (link here) and the GS pay scale is here for 2019. Most research scientists are between a GS-11 and G-15, which a post doc starting as a GS-11 or 12 depending upon the agency. Some federal scientist become Senior Positions (ST), which are above the GS pay scale (OPM page here).

Most research positions in the US Government are "Research Grade Evaluation" (link here, which means we have a review ever 4 years (similar to tenure), where the panel of our peers can recommend our we say in the same pay grade, be promoted, or demoted a level. Some agencies like NOAA and DOD have switched to pay bands rather than the GS pay scale.

How much job security do you have?

Probably similar to a US public academia setting. But, rather than be subject to the whims of state-level politics (US public universities), we are subject to federal politics.

How much control do you get over your topic of research?

This depends upon the position. I am free to study anything falling within the mission area of my agency and my local center, as long as I obtain funding for it through internal or external funding mechanisms. This is less than an academic in theory, but in practice, if you like the applied science of your agency, this is enough freedom for many people including me. Plus, I like directly working with managers to see my research applied.

Here is a link to an obligatory PhD Comic on Intellectual Freedom.

Last, as another answer noted, your questions are largely specific to a given organization. I suggest researching different agencies you might like to work for and reaching out to researchers at those agencies to conduct information interviews. During those interviews, ask similar questions to the ones you posed here.

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Conditions, pay, research autonomy are all highly dependent not only on whether you are in an FFRDC or academia, but where within those institutions you work. Given this, it isn't possible to give an all encompassing answer to your question.

What I can tell you for sure is that whether you work in an FFRDC or academia, funding tends to dictate the type of work you do. This is especially true if the academic research is funded by an agency with a clear deliverable. Although the exact topic may not be as flexible, working in FFRDCs and academia tend to allow for more autonomy in how you approach the problems presented to you. To work on a topic you care about, you'll have to either maneuver within those organizations onto a project that interests you or go to different organizations.

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