Some 50 000 Australian passports were issued in 1949-50, compared with 1.45 million in 1999-2000.
Many Australian professionals now spend a few years in the northern hemisphere. This is, however, no longer considered to be essential, though it is still necessary for scientists to develop an international reputation. The latter is now eminently achievable for those who see their research careers through in this country.
The problem is, though, that there are still too few high-quality jobs and many of the best do not return after leaving for what was to be a two- to four-year postdoctoral fellowship. This is unlikely to change. At the highest level, the world of basic science and ideas is not constrained by politics or national boundaries.
Talent flows to islands of opportunity and excellence, wherever they may be. It is also the case that the general community tends not to be disturbed when people who think for a living move on and out. Ideas are universal, published and available to all.
The loss is more at the level of training in our universities, where the young are no longer exposed to these bright minds, and in the clarifying input that very able people with diverse, sophisticated expertise can provide in a variety of areas.
The more outspoken may, of course, achieve the local status of the ‘meddlesome priest’. Some of those with power may be happy to see them leave, but we all lose when the pluralistic nature of our institutions is diminished. More disturbing to the politicians is the current emigration of large numbers of trained people who don’t necessarily live by their wits, but have the high levels of technical competence required by the global labour market.
It is increasingly the case that effective, interactive research programs are being developed across national and geographic boundaries.
This is inherent in the recent Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges, which are seeking collaborative, global efforts to address the ravages of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS in the developing world. Science is, by its nature as a search for universal truths, always ahead of general cultural attitudes and mechanisms when it comes to developing international efforts and interactions.
Perhaps the processes whereby scientists are able to operate in this way can provide some guidance for the development of broader world communities.
We are all aware that a major consequence of the communications revolution has been the movement of many routine jobs offshore, resulting in diminished opportunities for those with limited skills and education. At the same time, the growth of the global marketplace has led to a great increase in the emigration of well-trained professionals.
Most young, educated Australians are quite accustomed to jumping onto jets and heading off to spend time in other parts of the world. Go to a ski resort in the US Rockies and you are likely to be checked in by a desk clerk who is working through the long Australian university recess. A recent Australian newspaper article raised concerns about the loss of accountants to much better paid jobs in the UK.
The last time I discussed the emigration of accountants was with a South African, en route from Harare to Perth at the time of apartheid.
Some outstanding individuals will always choose to remain in Australia, largely because of family connections and social perceptions. Others may live for a time in, say, the US and find the experience enjoyable. They discover that the natives are friendly and that it is just as safe in a suburb of Boston or Chicago as it is in Melbourne or Adelaide. As their children and incomes grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to attract such people back.
If Australia is to retain a high quality of life, we must persuade those with talent and entrepreneurial ability that this is a good place to be. One way of offsetting the loss of young people is to tap diasporas from other societies. We are also recipients in this international ‘churn’ of well-qualified and innovative professionals.
The nation now has a much more diverse face as, in particular, many highly intelligent and hardworking young people who first arrived as students have made their homes here. The challenge is to retain the social safety nets and protections characteristic of a compassionate society, while at the same time avoiding the type of collectivist dynamic that stifles creativity.
It is also the case that we need to develop mechanisms for accessing the experience and insights of Australians who, though they may retain a strong sense of affection for their homeland, are unable to return here to live. The ExpatriateConnect.com website represents an initial attempt to develop informal, personal networks that might benefit Australian economic development. It will be interesting to see how this model evolves.
We have largely been freed from ‘the tyranny of distance’.
Time difference is of no great concern for web-based communication and even has some advantages for our southern-hemisphere location. Appropriately qualified and registered medical professionals can, for instance, read electronic brain scans through their Australian working day, and then send these ‘overnight’ results back to clinics in Los Angeles or Houston. Those involved in translating documents for international bureaucracies, scientific or literary editing, computer analysis for rational drug design, and so forth, can function effectively anywhere in the world where there is good broadband access. What can we do to refine our tax and immigration structures to attract such people and the international dollars they earn? The appeal of the beach-oriented environment and lifestyle may be considerable, but that alone may not be sufficient.
The ‘right fundamentals’ in a knowledge-based world are no longer those that work best for an insular, isolated, primary resource-oriented nation.
The other reason that the ‘tyranny of distance’ is less of a problem is that ‘the distance’ that is increasingly relevant to many Australian business people and professionals is to Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Beijing or Tokyo, rather than to London or New York.
The Australian federal sphere, in particular, needs to ask why it is that so many possibilities for development that originate from the northern hemisphere end up finding a local home in Singapore. What can we do as a nation to improve our chances in the bidding wars for these opportunities? Do we fully understand that there is a competition?
The one thing we must do is to keep our education system strong and open at every level and for all income groups. With a population of twenty million people we cannot afford to waste a single talented individual. International inequities in quality, research funding and salaries are still causing us to lose too many leading intellectuals from our universities.
In a world that demands flexibility of mind and rapid changes in focus, it is a disastrous error to force all our higher education systems to be narrow and goal-oriented. Mathematicians, philosophers, linguists, historians and chemists need to be equally valued in a dynamic university sector. Though technical expertise is always important, the primary aim must be to develop the type of sophisticated, critical, evidence-oriented thought processes that lead to effective outcomes in a broad spectrum of rapidly evolving situations. This is exactly the type of training that our competitors can experience in the top US institutions.
Particularly in the education and research sectors, there is a very real need to develop a culture of long-term, bipartisan, political consensus.
Perhaps it would be useful to initiate a process of continuing review that monitors where the smartest and most effective Australians are located, and asks repeatedly: ‘How do they operate, and what can be done to involve this pool of talent for the good of the country?’ The highly successful American model has emphasised discovery and openness in a cultural milieu where a measure of failure is regarded as both normal and a necessary consequence of doing something that is really new. Any big advance is likely to be associated with some risk.
Most thinking Australians realise that there is no way that we can avoid embracing a future of change and innovation.
Our institutions that promote inquiry, like the universities, the Australian Research Council (ARC), the National Health and medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), are doing their best to equip the country to deal with this.
The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has shown us that, given the commitment, resources and drive, our relatively small population can compete at the highest level. The AIS model has, however, relatively limited application, as it focuses on very predictable goals.
As a culture, we must continually explore mechanisms for promoting inquiry, invention, dynamism, opportunity and economic growth.
Why not take whatever steps we can in both the private and the public sectors to facilitate those who look to be winners in any area of human activity? Not all can succeed, but those who do will drive the future of this country.
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