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International careers report: Australia—punching above its weight

This Advertising Feature has been commissioned, edited, and produced by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

Modern Australia offers the world much more than first-class cricket and shrimps on the barbie. With a population of just 20 million, this nation has emerged as the top ranking location for biotechnology in the Asia-Pacific region and as a major global player in both physical sciences and academic and industrial life science. The country has excellent research infrastructure for life science and physical science, a powerful emphasis on collaborative projects and shared facilities, strong government funding of research, and an openness to scientists of all types – and particularly life scientists – from around the world

"Australia is absolutely punching above its weight in life science," says Anna Lavelle, CEO of AusBiotech, Ltd. "It has 0.3 percent of the global population, 2.8 percent of peer-reviewed papers, and significant global patents. Australia is No. 6 in the world in terms of companies and activity in biotechnology."

Stephen Livesey, CEO of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, outlines why the lucky country has proved so successful. "Excellent research facilities, innovative scientists, a can do attitude, and a strong but flexible regulatory regime have made Australia a life sciences powerhouse," he explains.

The authorities plan to keep it that way. "The Australian government has made a long-term commitment to building a world-class science and innovation system through our 10-year A$8.3 billion (US$6.3 billion) Backing Australia's Ability and Backing Australia's Future packages," says Julie Bishop, Minister for Education, Science and Training. "It has also introduced national research priorities to guide Australia's effort in areas of economic, social, and environmental importance."

Collaborative project

That guidance includes strong support for collaborative projects. "The National Health and Medical Research Council has set up a structure that encourages people to come together in teams," says Brandon Wainwright, professor of molecular genetics and director of the University of Queensland's Institute for Molecular Bioscience. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the national agency that supports research and development, funds cooperative work through its Flagship Collaborative Research Programme.

That program has helped to stimulate another ambitious project. "The federal government has tried to encourage formation of Cooperative Research Centres – combinations of a university-based research group with a particular industry and perhaps a connection to CSIRO or similar institution," says George Stewart, dean of the faculty of life sciences at the University of Western Australia. Those centers, adds John Shine, executive director of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, "have been very effective in facilitating increased interaction between academic, industrial, and governmental research."

Life science has received particular benefit. "The cooperative research centers have fostered the growth of strong intersectoral collaborations across the field of biosciences," observes Ian Frazer, director of the University of Queensland's Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research, and Australian of the Year 2006.

The centers focus on more than basic research. "We're not only about discovery science but also translation science from which we can derive benefits for mankind," explains Mark von Itzstein, executive director of the Institute for Glycomics and professor of medicinal chemistry and federation fellow at GriffithUniversity. Researchers and government granting organizations agree on the need to push research out of the lab. "We believe it's a moral imperative to get the results of our research back to the people who paid for it – the taxpayers," Wainwright asserts. "If we have a finding that we can apply, we'll do that. The government has an emphasis on outcomes." Peter Hoj, CEO of the Australian Research Council, points out the effect of that dynamic. "Even in nondirected research programs," he says, "researchers tend to end up in areas important for the economy."

Beyond the borders

Collaborative efforts extend beyond Australia's borders. "Schemes like the government's International Science Linkage program and the Australian Research Council's Linkages International program provide Australian researchers with access to international expertise, facilities, and projects," Bishop says. "We are building scientific networks and alliances of a depth and scale that allow us to share knowledge across borders and sectors." Industry takes a similar approach. "More than 70 percent of the 339 Australian life science alliances announced during 2005 were with organizations outside the country," Livesey says.

Australia has plenty of natural resources to offer overseas collaborators. Since 1993, for example, Europe-based pharma AstraZeneca has invested more than A$100 million (US$76 million) in seeking new drug compounds in Australian flora and fauna. The project, in cooperation with GriffithUniversity, has identified more than 700 bioactive compounds with druggable potential.

Overseas organizations have also cast envious eyes on another Australian resource – its young scientists. "We're missing people coming through into postgraduate work here," Stewart says. "A number of our top graduates go overseas to Europe or North America." Hoj emphasizes that point. "There's a global talent war going on," he says. "Australia needs to have a research system good enough to ensure that its scientists aren't sucked off permanently to other countries."

In recent years, however, Australia has begun to turn a brain drain into a brain gain. Increasing numbers of Australian scientists who go abroad for their postdoctoral research return to take up senior positions. Immigrants have joined them. "Recruitment from overseas has been rapidly growing in recent years, due to increased funding and more awareness of both Australian science and lifestyle," Shine reports. "Approximately half of our postdoctoral fellows at the Garvan Institute are from overseas."

It's hardly surprising that overseas organizations seek out Australian life scientists. The country has a proud history of achievement in the field. "We have five Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine," von Itzstein points out. "That demonstrates quite clearly that there is a very strong life science base within this country." Current laureates in residence include Peter Doherty, who shared the 1996 prize for discovering how the body's immune system recognizes virus-infected cells, and Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who received the award last year for their discovery that the bacterium Heliobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers and gastritis.

Abundance of resources

Complementing the people, the country has an abundance of physical resources. "It's hard to think of something we don't have," Wainwright says. "There's a synchrotron that's almost finished and other devices at the really heavy end of life science. We have a national genomics facility. We have extensive facilities in microscopy and cryo-electron microscopy. At the Institute for Molecular Bioscience we have just taken delivery of a 900 megahertz NMR. We're extremely well equipped for large science research, from synchrotrons to animal houses." Von Itzstein of the Institute for Glycomics provides his own take. "In terms of the infrastructure and mentoring scientists, we are exceptional," he asserts. "We have more than a dozen well-established research institutes operating in life and multidisciplinary science."

The country also possesses human and mechanical expertise in a wide range of life science disciplines. "The high quality of Australian research is particularly apparent in fields such as clinical medicine, biology, immunology, environmental sciences, and space science," Bishop says. Stewart sees an evolution in specialties. "Traditionally, Australia always had a strong plant science capability, largely because of its origin in agricultural research," he says. "More recently it's become more focused on molecular plant biotechnology, as well as immunology and genetics. The country has targeted niche areas rather than a broad front." That approach provides a moving target. "Immunology is an ongoing strength," Wainwright says. "That's been knocked on through isolation of new growth factors. There's a new cancer vaccine center here in Brisbane; we have a lot of strength in vaccine research. And we're seeing an emerging strength in molecular cell biology."

Recent additions to the Australian life science portfolio include research on stem cells. "Australia has cutting edge capabilities in stem cell research and is home to world-class scientists who undertake research and development on embryonic and adult stem cells under a clear and transparent national legislative framework," Livesey explains. "Our stem cell research has a distinct competitive advantage in the area of hematology; Australian groups have been able to develop primitive blood cells from embryonic cells. The Australian Stem Cell Centre is investing significant resources in pursuing this interest with a view to producing a manufactured, safe, and reliable supply of blood products from stem cells."

Industrial strength

That leads inevitably to industry, which can boast its own strength in life science. "Australia is home to a thriving network of 420 companies, up from 190 in 2001, whose core business is biotechnology," Livesey points out. "Of those, 48 percent are involved in human therapeutics, 16 percent in agricultural biotech, and 14 percent in diagnostics. Another 612 companies focus on medical devices." The sector contains globally recognized performers. "CSL is the world No. 1 in blood fractionation," AusBiotech's Lavelle says. "We have two very successful global medical device companies in Cochlear and Resmed."

Lavelle pinpoints one disadvantage. "We are very strong in drug discovery, but we don't have a strong local pharmaceutical industry," she says. "That hinders drug development."

It also points out, by omission, the value of collaboration among universities, government, and industry in stimulating life science research and development. "Building the connections between science and industry is a key theme in the Australian government's approach to science and innovation," Education, Science and Technology minister Bishop says. "Collaboration between researchers is already the dominant pattern for research activities in Australia, and this is complemented by a focus on maximizing results and improving the commercialization of new ideas." As Shine of the Garvan Institute sees it, "The process is leading to an evolving research culture more accepting of, and proactively seeking, support from industry."

Stewart at the University of Western Australia has first-hand experience of that culture. "The federal government is now encouraging more informal networks that link universities and industry," he says. "For example, we're a node of the nano major research facility. We have certain of the microscope facilities here; others are at Queensland. There's a group of four universities involved that get state-of-the-art equipment through government grants to work on nanotechnology."

Does Australia produce enough scientists to satisfy the requirements of its academic and industrial research enterprises? "We are currently in balance, in the life sciences," Hoj says. But he warns that science has declining appeal. "There is a concern that science as a career is not seen as attractive to young school leavers," he says.

As Australia's commitment to converting research into products continues, its institutions must work harder to recruit technical personnel. "The overall lack of qualified scientists has meant that companies need to cast their recruiting nets wider in order to find the right candidates," says Anne Sabine, director, Australia, for placement firm Kelly Scientific Resources. "The greatest demand is for cell biologists, molecular biologists, and protein chemists. In some cases we cannot keep up with the demand." Industry in particular finds a lack of qualified graduates from Australian universities. As a result, Sabine continues, "many positions are now being filled by cross-border recruitment efforts."

Rite of passage

For young Australians who commit to science, another issue stems from the fact that many undertake what has become virtually a rite of passage. "Australian Ph.D.s are very much in demand in overseas laboratories," explains the Institute for Molecular Bioscience's Wainwright. "And a lot of Australians tend to go abroad. It's seen as a backwards career move to stay in the country. So we don't hold on to that high a number of top Australian graduates."

Stewart agrees. "It's getting more and more competitive to get first class postgraduate students," he says. "A number of our top graduates go overseas, to Europe or North America."

Von Itzstein of the Institute of Glycomics points out that Australian organizations' demands on their scientists have evolved. "There is a fine set of life scientists coming through our excellent research and teaching institutions," he says. "But like other countries, we need to educate our scientists in a more multidisciplinary way. You can no longer be simply a fine biologist; you need to be integrated."

To find integrated scientists, Australian companies, universities, and research centers must recognize the need to seek help on a worldwide basis. "We see research as being conducted in a global village, and recruit internationally on merit grounds," Frazer says. "It's of note that we have more senior scientists in the Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research from overseas than from Australia."

That's a common experience. "Of the postdoctoral fellows in this institute, about half are from overseas," Wainwright notes. "More than 25 countries are represented: Asian countries and a lot of South Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. We seem to have a bit of a pipeline of European undergraduates coming through for six months or so. But we're underrepresented from the United States." Recruitment from abroad has also blossomed at the Garvan Institute. "Approximately 50 percent of our postdoctoral fellows are from overseas," Shine says. "We have very few from the U.S.A., some from Canada. A majority comes from Europe – France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland. And a growing number come from Asia, especially China."

Different skill sets

Overseas recruits carry with them more than different accents and languages. "We have extensive recruitment from overseas, because it brings in different skill sets and further consolidates international collaborations," von Itzstein says. "We get scientists from Asia, Europe, Canada, and the United States. It's an absolute joy to have an internationally based organization that's in touch with the world."

The federal government has begun to play its part in "ensuring that we continue to benefit from ‘brain circulation'," as Bishop puts it. "The Australian Research Council's Federation Fellowships scheme, for example, encourages Australian researchers working overseas to bring their skills back into Australian science, while scholarships offered under the Endeavour Programme allow high achieving students from around the world to undertake study or research in Australia."

The Australian Stem Cell Centre offers its own incentives. "Our Premier Scholarships are aimed at bright students who are preparing to undertake a Ph.D. in the area of stem cell science," Livesey says. "Currently the Centre funds and manages 12 Ph.D. students. And to augment the long lead time necessary in developing Ph.D. students, we are actively recruiting young scientists to move to Australia. They have arrived from North America, the Southeast Asian region, and Europe."

What attractions beyond first class science does Australia offer to students and career scientists from overseas? "One of the huge advantages is the lifestyle here," AusBiotech's Lavelle says. "Australians work very hard, but have a nice country – mild weather and a stable, law abiding environment. The educational standard is very high. We have a good, affordable medical system. People with families find all that very attractive. Once they get here, settling in is a simple process."

The country has some downsides. "People sometimes find that the number of specialized roles is fewer than in a much larger country," Lavelle says. More important is what many term "the tyranny of distance." The country lies far from the major global centers of science. "The greatest advantage is also probably the greatest disadvantage," Livesey says. "Australia may be the most livable and beautiful place to live and practice science, but it is also a long way from Europe and North America."

Unencumbered travel

However, administrators work hard to overcome that problem and any others that newcomers might experience. "We provide travel money for Ph.D. students and postdocs so that they are not encumbered from traveling to their favorite overseas meetings," Wainwright says. And at the Center for Immunology and Cancer Research, Frazer adds, "We take the belief that, at whatever level we recruit, we need to provide a sufficient startup package to ensure that their research productivity is not compromised by the move to our center. This includes salary and research support packages over three to five years from appointment."

For foreign scientists convinced that Australia is a golden destination, Lavelle adds one extra piece of advice. "Remember," she says, "to bring your sunscreen."

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