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Australia's `brain drain' linked to research decline

By David SolomonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1985



Canberra

In an age of rapid technological innovation, a nation's most crucial resource is its brain power. And without the proper seeding and nurturing, this resource, like any other, can erode, leaving a nation economically disadvantaged. These are the implications of research carried out by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations.

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Australia, according to a report prepared by Dr. Margaret Powles, is experiencing a major ``brain drain.'' Through the 1970s there was a substantial increase in the number of PhD and master's graduates who left the country to find jobs. By 1982, almost 30 percent of the PhDs and 15 percent of master's graduates were heading overseas immediately on graduation. The exodus was particularly marked in the physical sciences, where more than 60 percent of PhD graduates in physics, mathematics, and chemistry went abroad.

Dr. Powles describes the rate at which highly qualified graduates in the physical sciences are emigrating as ``alarming.'' She emphasizes that, in view of the declining career opportunities here, these people might be irrevocably lost.

The study links dwindling opportunities to major deficiencies in the funding of research in Australia. It reports that this country's gross expenditure on research and development (as a percentage of the gross domestic product) declined dramatically during 1973-74 and '78-79, the decline being most marked in the private sector (30 percent). The commonwealth government sector showed an 11 percent decline over the same period.

So far the government has tried to play down the results of the study, although in its last budget it did increase spending on universities and began to fund new private industry research programs in the high-technology field. The federal minister for education, Sen. Susan Ryan, says that a ``limited percentage'' of Australian PhDs going overseas is to be expected and is not necessarily a bad thing.

``There is a good deal of reciprocity in this process, since numbers of overseas PhD graduates also come to work or gain experience in Australia,'' she says. ``This has always been the case and is usually welcomed by Australian institutions as a means of maintaining links with academics in other countries.'' However, she notes that the government recognizes the importance of containing any exodus of qualified Australians and that the decision to increase university funding should improve the outlook for people with advanced degrees.

About 1,600 new academic jobs are expected to be created in the next three years, and special funding for major research centers in universities is also to be provided.

Senator Ryan's comments do not meet the main criticisms of the research study, which suggest that it is private industry and government, rather than universities, which are failing to provide the jobs for PhDs and master's graduates.

Dr. Powles feels one of the problems is that many private employers here in the resource area and in manufacturing have been turning to overseas sources for technological know-how, including importing professionals qualified in research. She observes, ``Importing new ideas, products, and processes from overseas involves paying out with little in return in home employment or economic growth.''

Dr. Powles further points out that ``arguments in favor of the correlation between investment in research and higher education and economic growth are supported by comparing Australia's investment in research with other developed nations'. Australia fares badly in comparison.

``Home-based innovation is seen by the most rapidly developing countries, such as Japan, the United States, West Germany, and Switzerland, as the key to economic growth. In these countries much emphasis is placed not only on research, per se, but higher education and the skilled labor power it generates,'' she explains.

Dr. Powles maintains that, while it has been common for PhDs and master's graduates to go overseas for experience for a year or two, they are staying away. She adds that some are being actively recruited from Australian campuses by international companies.

The report comes at a time when people in scientific-related industries have been complaining about cuts in government funding. The last federal budget saw no improvement, despite the advent of a new government and a new minister, Barry Jones, who called on scientists to improve their lobbying of governments.

Jones describes scientists as ``wimps'' at lobbying. They have begun to have more public impact, however, since the government-funded Australian Research Grants Committee was able to fund only one-third of what was sought by the university-based scientific community for 1985. The committee itself describes its funding as dismal and says that almost 600 scientists have been lost to Australia for the year because of lack of government support.