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Reader Riposte: Researchers need support

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COMMENTS

15 October 2012 09:00

Rowena Ball writes:

I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew Holmes that Australia's international scientific engagement must be strengthened. But there is a lack of support, at home and abroad, for those Australian researchers who already make the considerable efforts to develop and strengthen international research collaborations.

Foreign diplomatic and Defence (and, I believe, company) postings usually have well-resourced close-knit support structures appropriate to the circumstances and devoted to ensuring the success of their mission. Why should it be so different for researchers?

'International collaboration' sounds prestigious and exciting but for individual researchers the reality is often gruelling and thankless, with chronic exhaustion and even health problems brought on by frequent long-haul flights; the sheer loneliness of being separated from one's family for weeks or months at a time; the disruptions of preparing for and picking up tangled threads after visits abroad; timing problems because the academic year in Australia is six months out of phase with that in the northern hemisphere; and difficulties associated with living and working in non-English speaking countries.

I don't think grand arguments for strengthening international research engagements will lead to sustained and sustainable outcomes unless real solutions are put in place for these sorts of issues. (Although I admit that the out-of-phase academic years is intractable!)

Substantially increased funding would be required to provide, for example, dedicated international collaboration support staff at the local and collaborating foreign institutions, not to mention business class travel. University departmental budgets have been eroded so much over recent years that they cannot provide this level of support to their research staff, and research funding agencies explicitly prohibit the use of grant funds for such expenses.

It is a truism that you get what you pay for. If you pay for only the cheapest cattle-class flights, minimal accommodation and zero pre-, during-, and post-travel ancillary support then you will get only a lousy few thousand dollars worth of international research engagement and outcomes for Australia. But if the true costs of international research engagement are recognised and funded the rewards for Australia will be at least commensurate and most likely multiplicative.

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