Report—International networks and the competitiveness of Australia's science and technology

On 27 April 1999, the Australian Academy of Science published the following report on international networks and the competitiveness of Australia's science and technology.

Executive summary and recommendations

The centrality of knowledge to economic growth and international competitiveness is widely recognised. For a country such as Australia, which has a well-developed but comparatively small science base, access to global networks and the world’s leading researchers and laboratories is therefore of particular importance. It is through such linkages that Australia can ensure that its level of skills and skills training in research are of international standard. Such networks also provide timely access to the latest developments in knowledge, including new instrumentation and technical advances. Furthermore, international collaboration is an important mechanism for maintaining the visibility of Australian research and researchers.

Whilst the international dimension of scientific research is not new, what has changed over the last two decades is that technological progress and market competitiveness are contingent on this research being conducted in accordance with international best practice.

It is within the above context that this report investigates: (1) the various mechanisms by which international scientific networks are formed and maintained; and (2) actual and potential barriers to this process. The report addresses the topic from a number of different perspectives, paying particular attention to the opportunities for young scientists to acquire overseas research training and career development. As such the report provides an important framework for considering a wide range of issues that Australia needs to address if its linkages to world class scientific research networks and activities are to be kept strong.

An overview of the structure of the report, the findings and recommendations is provided below:

Personal networks account for much of the international linkages in science but their formation and maintenance and their influence are often due to various governmental and non-governmental structures. Part of the objective of Chapter 1 is to map out the many different elements of the international science system. This Chapter also overviews the policies, structures and mechanisms developed by some of the industrially advanced nations to promote international cooperation and mobility of scientists and improve industrial competitiveness. Of particular importance in this regard are the Framework Programmes of the European Community. A common feature of the Programmes is the emphasis on research collaboration between Member States and public and private sector organisations. Support is provided by the European Community Programmes for young scientists to gain training and experience in research institutions, including industrial laboratories, in other countries.

Another mechanism for the facilitation of international scientific collaboration is access to major facilities such as synchrotrons and astronomical observatories which are cost-shared among participating countries.

The important role of national government research funding agencies in facilitating international exchanges, particularly for young scientists, is illustrated through examples drawn from the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition, Chapter 1 explores the ways in which personal considerations are taken into account in ensuring successful international exchanges. The Marie Curie Fellowship Association and L’Association Bernard Gregory are discussed in this context.

Our overview of programs which support international cooperation in science and technology indicates the increasing recognition of the value and importance of greater cooperation between countries in research and research training.

Recommendation 1: That the policies and structures intended to support the internationalisation of Australian scientific effort and participation in international research activities be benchmarked against those of comparator countries and regional economies.

A different set of network issues is raised by global research programs in which international cooperation is essential if an effective understanding is to be achieved. Chapter 3 focuses on several such research programs where Australian cooperation is required as part of meeting international obligations or to ensure that issues in the Southern Hemisphere receive sufficient visibility and attention. Particular attention is directed in this Chapter to the networks needed in research associated with meteorology and oceanography and the Antarctic environment.

The formation of the international networks in these global research programs appears to be driven largely by the scientists. However, whilst there has been an effective involvement of Australian scientists in the networks and in the international research programs, Australia’s participation is becoming increasingly fragile. This is attributed to the constrained resources and the difficulty of attracting funding for the long-term monitoring programs. Similar issues are also raised in regard to access by Australian scientists to international research facilities.

The rapid advances in information and communication technologies have increased the amount of information which can be readily accessed and provided the means for more effective research collaboration, nationally and internationally. It is vital that Australia continues to have access to international scientific literature as well as to the expanding international databases. Chapter 1 identifies a range of problems for Australia to overcome in relation to access to the international scientific literature and databases, and emphasises the importance of a national approach to solve them.

Recommendation 2: A national strategy be adopted for securing access to electronic versions of all major scientific journals and electronic databases.

A number of Australian organisations which support international research training, exchange of scientists and research and development collaborations are overviewed in Chapter 2. These organisations are: the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (ISR), the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).

Most of the programs support short-term exchanges and there are few that provide for overseas postdoctoral training and career development of young researchers, with the opportunity for a position in an Australian institution or company at the completion of the overseas training. This issue is taken up again in Chapter 4.

The CJ Martin Fellowships of the NHMRC, which were established in 1952, and some of the other named fellowships of the NHMRC are an excellent model for international research training and career development of young researchers with direct benefits for Australia. The fellowships are usually awarded for four years, two of which are spent overseas and two in Australia.

Australia would benefit greatly from the establishment of a national overseas fellowship scheme. Although the ARC would be the appropriate body to be responsible for the operation of a national overseas fellowship scheme, the establishment of the scheme and the policies governing its operation would be relevant to several portfolios. An appropriate body to consider Recommendation 3 is the Coordination Committee on Science and Technology.

Recommendation 3: A national overseas postdoctoral fellowship scheme should be established, with conditions similar to the CJ Martin Fellowships of the National Health and Medical Research Council, to significantly increase the opportunities for early career researchers to gain research experience overseas. The four-year fellowships should be tenable in both public and private sector laboratories, overseas and in Australia.

Opportunities to acquire research experience in the world’s leading research laboratories often vary depending on the career stage of the scientist. However, there is a view expressed by a number of peak scientific bodies within Australia that there are fewer opportunities for young researchers to obtain such experience.

So what are the various types of awards and level of funds provided for young Australian scientists to gain overseas training and career development? The report addresses this question from several perspectives. In Chapter 4, the focus is on sponsored awards provided by organisations listed in a database entitled SPIN-Australia. On the basis of this database, profiles were prepared in the following broad discipline areas: Medicine; Science & Technology; Engineering; Energy; Agriculture; and ‘Other’ (i.e. no discipline restrictions). The programs listed within these profiles are of potential opportunities to obtain funding support for research training/career development overseas for young Australian scientists. One outcome from these profiles is that funding opportunities appear to vary quite substantially between fields of research, and for many awards funding is inadequate. Recommendation 3 above is also relevant in this context.

The SPIN program summaries contained in Appendix 2 also list a range of potential awards for established researchers, including exchange programs, conference attendance and travel abroad. The profiles of sources of support for overseas research experience for young Australian scientists represent one of the first efforts to systematically identify these opportunities within this country.

Recommendation 4: Universities ensure that all their overseas research funding opportunities are listed on SPIN-Australia or an equivalent database.

Chapter 5 reports the results of an investigation of the type and level of support actually provided by Australian higher education institutions for the establishment and maintenance of international networks. A questionnaire was designed to obtain the required information and sent to all those institutions with 1997 commencing PhD enrolments in the Sciences of at least 100. Information was requested in relation to academic staff (established staff and early career researchers), research students and overseas scholars. Obstacles to the facilitation of international networks were also canvassed.

It was apparent during the conduct of the survey that information regarding international linkages has not been routinely or systematically collected by the participating institutions. This relates particularly to destination information for PhD graduates and information about overseas early career researchers. Similar concerns were also raised in Chapter 2 regarding the need to improve the collection of data regarding the international mobility of both Australian and overseas scientists and engineers to and from Australia. Whilst individual institutions might feel that the collection of such data is yet another burden, the payoffs in terms of being able to illustrate successful placement of postgraduates in leading overseas institutions must surely outweigh such concerns.

There are other good reasons for universities to compile information on the destinations of their PhD graduates besides the consideration of overseas training. These relate to the employment opportunities for PhD graduates and the aims of PhD training.

Recommendation 5: Greater attention needs to be directed to the systematic compilation of time series data on PhD graduate employment destination information both in terms of country of employment and sector of employment. The scientific manpower surveys undertaken by the US National Science Foundation and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology are instructive in this regard. This is an issue which needs to be discussed by the AVCC and the Graduate Careers Council of Australia.

Despite the difficulties mentioned above, the survey results provide a useful insight into the role and adequacy of institutional support for networking opportunities for Australians overseas and for visiting overseas scholars in Australia. In this regard, whilst forms of support vary between the survey institutions a common concern was that there were insufficient funds to support international linkages at the level considered appropriate. One consequence of this identified by several institutions was that younger scientists were forced to compete with established researchers for these limited funds. The relatively small number of postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the major national research funding agencies which allowed for a component of overseas training for young scientists was also considered an impediment to the formation of international networks for this group. Also whilst it was well-recognised that participation in overseas conferences was an important component of research training for young scientists it was clear that the funding available for these conferences was very limited, particularly for PhD students.

In relation to established researchers one of the main obstacles to maintaining and enhancing international networks was considered to be the limited funding available to support the range of activities required. The value of the Australian dollar, combined with high living costs in major industrialised countries were identified as particular obstacles to overseas research work. Concern was also raised regarding the many different work commitments for established academic staff. These were considered to restrict the ability of established staff to take advantage of opportunities for overseas based research activity.

Whilst attracting high calibre international visitors to Australia for the purposes of exchanges or conference/workshop participation is considered just as important as Australians going overseas for the same purposes, a number of obstacles to this, in addition to funding, were identified. These include the very distance of Australia from the world’s leading research centres combined with the perceived quality of the research infrastructure in Australia. Visa application procedures and taxation issues were also identified as potential impediments.

In relation to overseas PhD students receiving training at the survey institutions the most prominent home countries were China and Indonesia. A range of funding sources were listed regarding the support of these students. These included support provided by the host institution, AusAID, the student’s home country, and the Overseas Postgraduate Research Scholarship Scheme administered by the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

For those institutions providing information regarding overseas postdoctoral fellows/early career researchers the most prominent home countries were Europe and North America. The Host Institution, the Home Country and the ARC were listed as principal sources of support for facilitating this training in Australia.

The focus of Chapter 6 is on the opportunities provided by the industry-linked Cooperative Research Centres and the Rural Research and Development Corporations for PhD students and researchers to attend overseas conferences and visit research institutions, and for collaborative research or arranging strategic alliances.

Considerable support and encouragement is provided by the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) for their PhD students to attend international conferences and visit research institutions. Research staff of the CRCs have many opportunities for overseas visits to industry establishments as well as to universities and other research organisations. Several CRCs reported improved linkages with universities and companies in the Asia-Pacific region. Commercial-in-confidence requirements have not been a problem for the participation of CRCs in international networks. CRCs also have been able to provide for their researchers the type of interface between public and private sector organisations along the lines of the Mobility and Training Programme of the European Union.

The Rural Research and Development (R&D) Corporations recognise the importance of international links and often approve overseas travel for their grantees for conferences and visits to institutions. Collaborative research with overseas institutes, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), is supported on occasion when it contributes to meeting the objectives of the research project.

The important role international conference participation plays in establishing and extending research networks, particularly for young scientists, is reflected in a number of different sections in this report. In this regard, universities are encouraged to consider how best to implement the following recommendation:

Recommendation 6: Resources should be provided to enable PhD students to attend at least one international conference during the period of their training.

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