As time goes on, most established scientists find themselves spending less time experimenting at the bench and more time doing administrative things like chasing funding. It is easy to lose contact with practical things. Since 2000, I have headed up the oil palm programme at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) in Montpellier, France. I managed a €6 million R&D programme involving 38 people, including 10 expatriate officers in tropical countries. This was a fantastic and exciting challenge for me, but it kept me away from my original activity and passion: scientific research. When the opportunity arose to get back to the bench at the plant industry section of the Canberra-based Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a public research institution with strong links with industry, I couldn't pass it up.
Mobility for "Established Researchers"
So, how did this opportunity to do science "down under" come about? I started to collaborate with Jean Finnegan from the Plant Industry (PI) department at CSIRO in 1998, when I met her at an International Epigenetics Workshop in Paris. The research work we are interested in focuses on epigenetic variation in higher plants and exploring the role of DNA methylation in the determination of somaclonal variation (that is, for variations which are detected in clonal plants originating from a somatic cell or group of cells -- in our case -- in leaf cells).
Lavoisier Fellowship from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that my Ph.D. student, Estelle Jaligot, could do an 8 month postdoc stay at CSIRO-PI in 2003. The work was successful enough that the two groups co-authored several papers.
Back to the Bench?
This collaboration with Jean Finnegan at CSIRO PI was already bearing fruit, and I was keen to update my scientific knowledge by working there myself. The burning question was how? The answer: a Marie Curie Outgoing International Fellowship (OIF). To be awarded such a fellowship, you need to apply with a "returning" host institute in Europe and a partner host institution outside Europe -- in my case, CSIRO-PI. The fellowship covers up to 2 years abroad plus up to a year reintegration into the "returning host" institute.
We submitted our proposal for the May 2003 deadline, after several weeks of intensive work, mostly outside of business hours in order to take maximum advantage of antipodal time zones. When the decision arrived from Brussels in May 2004, we celebrated with French and Aussie champagne on both sides of the planet.
Why was I successful? I believe that the international reputation of my Australian counterparts and our existing and effective collaborative activities were key factors. Furthermore, both institutions, CSIRO and CIRAD, had recently agreed on collaborative research goals and share the same philosophy and mandates: working in close partnership with industry, integrating innovative science, and delivering valuable products to end users in the agro-industrial world. On both the macro and the micro scales, our goals were aligned precisely.
The choice of Australia as a final destination had (almost!) nothing to do with my favourite hobbies: wines and rugby. My wife--who spent most of her childhood and teenage years overseas--was keen to undertake a new expatriation experience, and the kids were excited by the prospect of jumping among kangaroos.
An ideal solution would be when these factors are taken into account in the calculation on the fellow's salary, instead of a lump sum irrespective of the family situation. It is fair to say that these kinds of considerations are not integrated sufficiently into Marie Curie Fellowships. I was fortunate however; my institution in France is used to sending its scientists overseas, and they generously paid for these "hidden" expenses: school fees, airfare for holidays, compensation for my spouse's loss of salary, independently of the OIF.
Landing Successfully Down Under
Settling in "down under" has been very easy, despite the brutal climate shift from a south-of-France summer to a freezing Canberra winter. This minor downside has been quickly made up by a warm Aussie welcome and the discovery of the local flora and fauna.
The bureaucracy here (see box) is less unpleasant than it is in other parts of the world, including most European countries. Australia has been welcoming foreigners for centuries, so there is a strong tradition of people moving in and out. Canberra is the political capital, and is host to embassies from many countries, which means that the city contains expatriate communities that can help you solve problems with things like schools and housing. I also received valuable help from my host institution in Australia and from French colleagues working for several years in the country.
If you decide to stay, Australia makes it fairly easy. It is easier for an academic to come to Australia with a temporary visa and to transform it into a permanent one in situ. Australia likes to "import" foreign scientists/researchers and many opportunities still exist.
Bureaucracy to Go Down Under
There are a lot available so the correct choice is important. Visas vary depending on the purpose of your stay, age, intended time of residence, and other factors such as the status of your employer in Australia.
*Please note: the "Visiting Academic" procedure is valid only if you will be paid by a European institution in Europe (or directly by European Commission) during your outgoing phase.
Although many people consider Australia primarily a country of surf and sunshine, it is also a great place for research. Leaving the obvious Nobel laureates aside, the country has a very active scientific community, which has been involved in cutting edge science and technology for many decades. Australia has achieved world leadership in many research topics, including plant genomics. Probably due to their relative geographical isolation, Australian scientists are much more open to mobility than my Europeans colleagues. It is part of the culture here for young people go overseas and see the world before choosing a career. I also think this has an impact on the way Australian scientists consider collaborative projects with international partners; they are prepared to put a real effort into international networking.
Science in Australia:
An important point: Australia is an (huge) island and wants to avoid agro ecological catastrophes linked to imported pests and diseases. This could have an impact your scientific activities if you are planning to import biological material from your country of origin. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Services (AQIS) are responsible for this. Most of Australian research institutions can provide import permits for biological material dedicated to scientific studies. More information can be found online.
My stay has kept all its promises: the Canberra group are very dynamic scientists who have performed pioneer work in epigenetics and are now engaged in the most innovative concepts in molecular biology, at the interface between medicine and plant science. It is really stimulating to find yourself in the position of being a 44-year-old student, learning and discovering every day, in the friendly but effective atmosphere that seems to be the distinctive mark of this country.
The reintegration phase of the project will take place during July 2006 through July 2007. Then I will be based back in CIRAD in Montpellier, France, spending most of my time writing papers, teaching, and giving seminars in European groups working on Plant Epigenetics.
This period will undoubtedly have a huge impact in the following steps of my scientific career. At the end of the OIF project I may work as a full time researcher back at CIRAD or co-ordinate and manage plant biotechnology programmes?or both. Whichever, my Marie Curie Fellowship has given me an excellent opportunity. I will draw from this stimulating training period in Australia which has updated my knowledge by learning from top scientists in my research field, in a typically friendly Aussie atmosphere.
No worries, mate!
Further Resources of Interest: