Memoir

Beating the tyrant distance

ALTHOUGH AUSTRALIANS MAY be increasingly conscious of our unique, ancient, indigenous culture, the national psyche is very much attuned to the reality that most were either born elsewhere or are descended from people who arrived from Europe, Asia or the Americas less than 220 years ago. We have traditionally thought of ourselves as being a long way from anywhere, the "anywhere" in question having a generally northern face.

Prior to the 1950s, relatively few Australians ever made the journey back across the equator. While my English grandparents always spoke of the green fields and villages of rural Essex as "home", they had neither the resources nor the inclination to return, either permanently or for a visit. Regular overseas trips were the province of the wealthy, or for those with business or political reasons. My wife's grandparents were born in Mel­bourne. Being in the wool trade, they travelled en famille to Britain and Japan during the first part of the 20th century. The sea voyage was long, and a defining social experience, especially for young people. However, the only "mass travel" prior to the 1950s was by military personnel, firstly to fight in the wars of the British Empire then, more regionally, to defend this country against attack. This experience, associated with death and loss, led to a rather constrained view of other cultures that still persists in elements of Australian conservatism.

 

AUSTRALIAN PROFESSIONALS IN the creative arts, theatre and academia migrated routinely to the northern hemisphere, many never to return. Before 1949, of course, all Australians carried a travel document identified as a British Passport. At least in this sense, there was no separate Australian identity. Some 50,000 Australian passports were issued in 1949-1950, com­pared with 1.45 million in 1999-2000. Then, but not now, we thought of ourselves as snugly embedded in the British Imperial family. A few, who must not have stood in the immigration line at Heathrow Airport, still seem to retain this illusion.

Prior to 1950 and into the 1960s, many who were to become leaders in Australian science and medicine earned their postgraduate, professional qualifications from the various universities and specialist colleges in Britain and Ireland. A number, like the eminent virologist, then immunologist, Macfarlane Burnet, worked their northern passages as ships' doctors. Burnet spent several years at the now-defunct Lister Institute in London, before returning to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne for the remain­der of the laboratory-based part of his career. His speculations on the nature of immune tolerance led to his sharing the 1960 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, the first such recognition for an Australian who made a career in this country.

Howard Florey completed his medical training in Adelaide but ended his days more than four decades later at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathol­ogy at Oxford University. Along the way he shared the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery and use of penicillin. Though he did not re-establish residency here, he visited many times, firstly to assist with the establishment of the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the new Australian National University (ANU), then to serve as chancellor. The 1963 Nobel Prize went to the Melbourne-born neurophysiologist Jack Eccles, who trained early on in Britain but worked mostly in Sydney, Dunedin and Canberra. He left the JCSMR in 1965 to avoid compulsory retirement, then continued a productive research program in Buffalo, New York, well into his seventies.

John Cornforth graduated from the University of Sydney, but has spent the remainder of his career in various British research institutions. Due to his early deafness, he felt that a job as a university teacher was out of the quest­ion. Cornforth shared the 1975 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work on "the stereochemistry on enzyme catalysed reactions". He was recognised as the 1975 Australian of the Year, following Burnet (the first such do you mean Aus­tralian of the year award), Eccles and Patrick White. White, who won the 1973 Nobel Prize for literature, was born in London to Australian parents from established pastoral families and, though he had part of his education in Britain, passed most of his life in or near Sydney and wrote with great insight about the Australian experience. Many of our leading authors have lived for a time in the northern hemisphere, though, like Peter Carey who lives in New York City, their work retains a substantially Australian character.

A few university and scientific luminaries, such as the Adelaide-born nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant, gave up very established, safe careers in the United Kingdom (and a possible shot at the Nobel Prize) to found the ANU research schools, the first Australian institutions designed specifically to award the PhD degree. Training to the PhD level, the entry ticket to a career in science or academia, is now available in all our universities. Many Australian professionals still 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 professionals 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.

 

THE "POPULATE OR perish" movement that gathered momentum after World War II led to a great increase in the number of passenger liners travelling to Australia, which in turn meant that there were relatively cheap fares on ships going north. It became part of the experience for well-educated young Australian women to spend a season, or a year or two, in Britain and Europe. This was much less common for their male counterparts, unless they were in academia or the professions. Working Australians of both sexes also travelled and took what were then plentiful, short-term jobs. Earls Court in London became known as an Australian ghetto.

I had a very junior position in the Queensland Department of Primary Industries when, in response to an advertisement in the leading scientific journal, Nature, I applied for a job as a research pathologist in Scotland. Then, as now, the market for scientific talent was global. The offer came after an exchange of letters. Nobody even thought of telephoning: it was much too expensive. My wife, Penny, and I left from Sydney in 1967 on board The Aus­tralis, a Greek ship that was originally commissioned in 1940 as the North Atlantic liner, the SS America. It served as a troop ship (the USS West Point) through World War II, and was then being run around the world by its owners until it broke, burned or sank. Out of respect for its American heritage, The Australis seemed to be carrying the entire US surplus of Thanksgiving turkeys and cranberry sauce.

We lived in central Edinburgh for five years and were always aware when the Women's Weekly Tour was in town. This was the start of the "overseas trip" as a rite of passage for many older Australians. Suddenly, Princes Street would be full of colourfully dressed, tanned people who were obviously enjoying themselves. The age of mass air travel was also just beginning, as the immigrant ships gradually disappeared and went completely with the advent of the Boeing 747s. A vivid memory is of a thin, elderly man wearing shorts and long socks, sitting on a chair in the hall of mirrors at the Versailles Palace with a Qantas bag on his knee. Was this real or imagined? When we returned to Australia in 1971, we flew back. After Scotland, Brisbane in December seemed an incredibly lush, colourful and exotic place. The stilt houses perched on the hillsides looked impermanent, and the voices raised at the end of the sentence conveyed a general sense of unease.

The essential experience of those who have been away for a substantial time is to see once-familiar things through a very different prism. It is best, though, to keep such thoughts private, at least for a time. People who have been there all along may not understand what you are talking about, and can take your comments as criticism rather than affectionate observation. Keeping your mouth shut is Lesson Number One for the returning expa­triate. Be aware that you are likely to have forgotten some of the local rules of discourse, or that those rules may have changed during your absence. If you follow Teddy Roosevelt's advice to "walk softly and carry a big stick", use it to check for crocodiles and to measure the depth of the water before jumping in.

 

IN GENERAL, AUSTRALIANS did not begin to look seriously to North America as a place to live until well after World War II. In The Great Shame (Doubleday, 1999), Thomas Keneally tells the story of the Irish political transportees who escaped and ended up in the United States. General Meagher, for example, fought for the Union in the civil war, but later drowned (was possibly mur­dered) while he was governor of Montana. Others left in the late 19th century for the Alaska gold rush. Melbourne-born-and-raised Harry Bridges is an iconic figure in US trade-union history for his leadership of the Longshore­men during the first half of the 20th century.

The increasing movement (from the 1960s) of Australian scientists to the US reflected the massive federal investment in physical sciences during the Cold War, and the rapid continuous expansion of both the National Insti­tutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The advances supported by the NIH and the NCI will, I believe, come to be seen as one of the best things that humanity did during the 20th century. The distribution of these federal research dollars to both private and state universities via highly competitive, peer-reviewed mechanisms led to the continuing, incredible dynamism of the leading US institutions of higher education. It also resulted in an erosion of top-down, "God-Professor" administrative models, a process that began later and is still in progress here. The open, flexible US research culture has in turn fostered high-technology industrial development in areas as diverse as electronics and drug development. This country has evolved local, smaller-scale variants of the US funding model in the Australia Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). A big problem here, though, is the relative lack of other means of research support from foundations and industry.

We left for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in mid-1975, after spending three and a half years at the JCSMR. While in Canberra, Rolf Zinkernagel and I did the experiments and generated the concepts that led to the award of the 1996 Nobel Prize. Though our findings (published in Nature) were widely recog­nised at the time as constituting a major breakthrough, no effort was made to keep either of us in the country. This largely reflected institutional rigidity, the limited availability of resources and the then-strong Australian tradition of "looking after your little mates". The word for such "mateship" in the US is nepotism. Thankfully, that culture of "blokey mateship" and "old boy net­works" is being eroded, with many more women in very senior positions throughout society.

My research was funded largely by NIH grants during the seven years that I spent on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at The Wistar, America's oldest private biomedical research institution. I became part of the US immunology circuit and got to know a number of top Australian scien­tists working in a range of disciplines. Most of these people have stayed in the US, and at least one is a prominent candidate for a Nobel Prize. We met a different set of compatriots through the local Australian/American assoc­iation. At that stage, many of the older members were war brides who had moved to the US with their World War II servicemen husbands. There was the usual spread of expatriate academics and business people working for companies with branches in Australia. Towards the end of this period, we also began to encounter Australian entrepreneurs who were seeking a larger market for innovative technologies that they had developed back home. These were people whom Australia could not afford to lose, then or now. Increasingly, Australian companies (like CSL and Visy) have substantial US operations. A new generation is also looking more to the massive potential markets in Asia.

I left Philadelphia for a professorship at the JCSMR in 1982. The US dollar was then worth less than the Australian dollar. We were lucky to get US80c for the Aussie when we left Canberra again in 1988. Under the Hawke/Keating government, Australia had at last begun to deal with the issue of where the country actually sat in the world economy. The results have been both painful and inevitable, and have led to the gradual develop­ment of much more realistic and competitive social models. This country has changed enormously over the past 20 years.

The second move to Canberra proved to be a disaster. I ignored Lesson Number Two for returning expatriates: don't try to change anything unless you have the direct power to drive the process through to its conclusion. My thinking at that time was that I could, by reasoned argument and persuasion, help to adapt some aspects of the more competitive, accountable, open and dynamic US funding process to promote excellence in the JCSMR and the ANU. This has since happened to the considerable benefit of both institu­tions. However, the three of us who served on the 1985 vice-chancellor's review committee that made such proposals, soon found ourselves margin­alised within the institution. We all left the ANU. Two headed for the US.

It was not hard to depart again for an academic system that was both intellectually accessible and transparent. The way the ANU worked in those distant days was, to say the least, more than a little murky. The recent exper­ience of Rory Hume at the University of NSW emphasises that, even for people who have major leadership roles, applying strategies that would be acceptable in a top US institution can still lead to disaster here. Lesson Number Three is for expatriates who return at a high level. Find a few wise heads that have lived with the system for a long time and consult regularly before taking action. Perhaps some training in playing war games would also be useful.

 

I HAD BEEN working at St Jude Childen's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, for some eight years when the Nobel Award was announced in October 1996. Being a bit slow, I had not yet started to use email, and prob­ably offended a few people who sent congratulatory messages via that medium. Now I travel with a BlackBerry, a wireless device that provides instant email access wherever I choose to exercise the prerogative.

The capacity for rapid, electronic interchange of ideas, results and manu­scripts allows me, with a great deal of help from both junior and senior colleagues and the accumulation of a lot of frequent-flyer kilometres, to run research programs in both Memphis and Melbourne. After regular visits back home in 1997 (when I was Australian of the Year), we spent three months annually at the University of Melbourne, then extended that to nine months in 2002. I returned this time with the sense that Australia was chang­ing rapidly and that there was an opportunity to provide some commentary that might influence the process in ways that I believe to be positive. As might be expected in any quasi-political effort by someone with too many commitments and no real power, the results have been mixed but it is grati­fying to at least be able to make the attempt. Also, with the written word in particular, none of us can sense where our thoughts might go, or what effect they might have.

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 20 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 ARC, the NHMRC and the 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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