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Please, sirs, can we have some more? Aussie scientists need fuel, not gruel

International collaboration is vital if Australian scientists want a place at the table. matsuyuki

THE STATE OF SCIENCE: Is Australia at risk of becoming a “mendicant nation” with regards to science and scientific knowledge? Can its government afford to cut support for international collaboration? Cathy Foley investigates.

Scientists in Australia conduct less than 3% of the world’s research. Not bad given we represent just 0.3% of the global population, but still more than 97% short of the total. So how do we access the rest of what’s out there? How do we share what we have, and get others to share with us?

It has been long recognised that scientific collaboration between researchers in different countries is an essential aspect of research and development. Apart from being intellectually satisfying for the individual researcher, it has proven to be cost-effective by reducing unnecessary duplication of research efforts.

Collaboration of this sort maximises the scale and scope of a research program by focusing efforts into one place. Good examples are the Large Hadron Collider and the planned Square Kilometre Array.

International collaboration can also enable the researcher access to specialised instrumentation and research facilities such as synchrotrons or telescopes.

Investment in initiatives for forging international collaborations includes co-investment in large-scale facilities (for example, the international nuclear fusion experiment known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER); competitive discovery projects (the European-Australian FEAST program), as well as support for individual researchers to visit laboratories and facilities overseas.

In these ways, Australia has gained enormously from scientific research generated globally that would just not be possible by reading the literature.

Building blocks

Science and innovation are essential components for the economic development of a nation. Western nations have benefited, without a doubt; our Asian neighbours are investing heavily in scientific research to drive their future economic prosperity.

These components are also an effective means of addressing global challenges such as those undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. International collaborations contribute to positive international relations and can also lead to attracting foreign investment.

Most countries have a variety of programs to facilitate these international collaborations providing, in many cases, funds for researchers from countries other than their own.

Over the last ten years, the Australian government supported a program called the International Science Linkages (ISL) program. A review of its modest $10 million per year investment identified that it had been highly successful, with evidence of flow-on benefits.

These included the creation of new research collaborations and the strengthening and growth of existing research relationships. But the ISL program lapsed on June 30 this year because of the “current tight fiscal environment”, and no plan was put forward for a successor program.

Now, let’s be clear. Australia is a member of the G20 group of nations. It is the envy of almost every western nation for its economic prosperity during the difficult years after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Yet when we collaborate internationally, we now have to go begging for funds, even from our poorer neighbours.

At the begging bowl

Has Australia become a mendicant nation when it comes to international science collaboration?

At his National Press Club address in June, the Chief Scientist for Australia, Ian Chubb, described Australia in the past as being a “mendicant country”, contributing little to the world’s stock of knowledge but accessing whatever it needed.

We are now in danger of returning to this scenario.

Is it really a saving in tight fiscal times to cut a program from which a Nobel Prize was won? (Brian Schmidt’s work that contributed to the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was a result of work funded by ISL).

Barack Obama could have been referring to all nations in his 2009 [address to the US National Academy of Science](http: “At such a difficult moment [referring to the GFC in April 2009], there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is some how a luxury.

"I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it ever has been before.”

There are many examples of international collaborations that have had positive impact: real-time ocean forecasting undertaken with a joint US-France team, decoding genomes essential in keeping Australia in the race to adapt to a genomics paradigm, developing life-saving vaccines after learning new skills overseas in the UK and China, to name just a few.

The return on investment from these international linkages has been exceedingly successful financially and socially. Reviews of the programs have regularly measured this.

Most governments in the world agree that international scientific collaborations are an excellent investment. As a G20 nation, we cannot afford to be confused about our place in international scientific collaboration.

We simply cannot be the ones putting out their hands for support, saying current fiscal environment is too tight. An investment of $10M per year over ten years has delivered a significant return. Voices from our peak science body and learned academies are all saying we should be increasing our investment to a level of $30M a year – not cutting it.

That would be money well-spent without a doubt.

This is the tenth part of The State of Science. To read the other instalments, follow the links below.

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