NSF Out Back


Many practical obstacles exist to international scientific exchange, even among friendly nations like the United States and Australia. There is distance, for instance: Australia and America could hardly be farther apart geographically. Then there are the fiscal practicalities: National governments don’t want to fund science in countries–even close allies–that compete scientifically and economically.

Yet, international cooperation has important and tangible benefits, so overcoming practical obstacles and constraints to facilitate international science is a priority for most funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF). All NSF’s divisions share the goal of facilitating international science, but this is the primary goal for one NSF office: the Office of International Programs. Christine French, a program officer in the East Asia Pacific program, is responsible for the office’s Australia portfolio. In a telephone interview, French described several NSF programs that assist scientists who wish to do science with, or in, Australia.

NSF’s Summer Institute in Australia

For years, NSF-sponsored summer institutes have sent American graduate students abroad, in cooperation with overseas science-funding institutes. But this summer is NSF’s first in Australia, and in its first season the program, the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) for U.S. Graduate Students in Australia, the competition was stiff. NSF awarded round-trip plane tickets and a $3000 stipend to 20 graduate students and sent them off to Australia. The Australian Academy of Science, the program’s Australian sponsor, will cover the students’ local living expenses. The application deadline for next year’s program is 10 December 2004. The program lasts approximately 8 weeks, starting in mid-June, but program dates vary slightly from year to year.

Before submitting an application, student-applicants should locate an Australian host laboratory and develop a research plan, in consultation with their U.S.-based mentors and graduate advisors and their host advisors overseas. Not every applicant meets this requirement, but the intense competition for a limited number of slots means that those who don’t are unlikely to succeed. “People who have not found a host tend to be ranked pretty low,” says French, “because there are sufficient numbers of people who come in with a much more concrete research plan.” The strongest applications come from people who, in French’s words, “know exactly where they’re going and what facilities there are.” Other summer programs, like the ones in Korea and Taiwan–are less competitive.

One hallmark of the Australia program is that, because the Australian partner is a nongovernmental organization, students can choose to connect with an Australian laboratory in any sector: academia, nonprofit, industry, or government, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s vast network of government-supported labs. The majority of this year’s participants ended up at universities all across Australia, although a sizeable minority of participants are working at museums. The remainder split between CSIRO and nonprofit labs. Although this year no one chose to go the industry route, it remains a possibility for future program participants. For more information on how to find a host laboratory and other practicalities, see the EAPSI home page.

One of the challenges applicants for NSF’s summer institute participants face is scheduling. If you’re a busy grad student hoping to get experiments done, papers out, and finish the dissertation sometime in this century, it can be hard to take time off, even for work. And in the case of the NSF summer institutes, there are other parties whose calendars must be consulted.

First is NSF itself, which enforces a rigid schedule for the summer institutes. NSF requires program participants to show up on day one of the orientation program and stay until the end 8 weeks later. Even though participants may be scattered all over a large continent, notes French, NSF regards the summer institute as a group activity, starting with the orientation program and continuing, in some programs, with other group activities throughout Australia’s winter.

Q. When is a summer institute not a summer institute?

“We refer to these as summer institutes,” says French, “though we may have to revise that terminology at some point, because it turns out that in Australia it’s not summer.” This difference of the seasons is unlikely to be news to most readers, even the geographically challenged, but it does pose an additional scheduling challenge for summer-institute participants. Many universities in Australia have inter-semester winter breaks during the early part of NSF’s “summer” institute, which means that once you’ve found a lab that is willing to host you, you still have to make sure someone will actually be there for those dates. Your experience abroad is unlikely to be stimulating, educational or culturally, if there’s no one in the laboratory to work with and all the students have gone for holidays.

The goal of NSF’s summer institutes–including the version in Australia–is to foster a generation of scientists that is comfortable in international settings. And, although the Australia program is too new to evaluate, for other summer institutes it seems to work: “What we find is, not only are they no longer concerned but they’re actually eager to continue with some form of collaboration and contact,” says French. And this contact sometimes leads to future opportunities. “A number of participants in these programs have had postdoctoral offers from the country or the lab where they originally spent their summer.” One participant in an early summer institute in Japan is now on the faculty at a Japanese university.

The program in Australia is too new to measure feedback–the first round of students are still overseas–but other East Asia programs have been received very well by participants. “The expression that comes through in many of the reports,” says French, “is that this experience will change your life. It may change your career path, but it will definitely have a lasting impact on your career, whether you go on in research or academia, or industry, or what have you.”

Enhancing Your Dissertation

The summer institute is NSF’s only Australia-specific research training opportunity for graduate students, but another NSF program–the Doctoral Dissertation Enhancement Projects program–offers flexibility and a longer term for U.S. graduate students seeking foreign-research experiences including, but not limited to, Australia. “An individual student can propose to go to a lab in any of these countries at any time in the year for [theoretically] any duration of time,” says French. Like the summer institute program, student-applicants and their mentors are expected to do their own footwork and submit a strong proposal for research training that emphasizes the specific scientific advantages of the overseas collaboration.

NSF encourages institutions that wish to develop international training programs for undergraduate and graduate students to apply for an International Research Experiences for Students award.

What About Postdocs?

Postdocs who wish to work in Australia–or in any other foreign country–on NSF’s dime are invited to apply for the highly competitive International Postdoctoral Fellowships program. One nice feature of the international postdoc program is that it allows a “reentry” period for scientists who wish to do most of their postdoc abroad, but recognize the potential disadvantages of being overseas while job hunting. Generally, scientists overseas are more expensive to interview, the logistics can be more complex, and scientists abroad can become disconnected from the networks that support favored candidates for the best jobs. NSF’s international postdoc program provides some relief from these disadvantages. “[International postdoctoral fellows] can actually come back to the U.S. and work in another lab and be on site and a little closer to the recruitment process,” says French.

Beyond the Postdoc

Until 1 June of this year, scientists with faculty appointments were invited to apply to NSF’s International Office for funding to cover the incremental costs of international collaborations, like travel for consultation, research planning, paper drafting, and so on, as well as the costs of shipping equipment or samples. “Core” research costs were expected to be paid for by regular NSF grants or grants from other sources.

Still, applicants interested in foreign collaborations–with Australia or any other country–are encouraged, by NSF, to apply for regular research grants for cooperative research that include expenses associated with international collaborations. Furthermore, scientists with existing NSF awards are invited to apply for supplements to pay international-collaboration expenses. Finally, scientists who plan to establish international scientific collaborations can apply for funding for Planning Visits and Workshops with international partners.

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Elsewhere in Science, 9 August 2013