As in America and Britain, low-skilled illegals can get in with little trouble. In the Australian and British cases, they just have to say the magic word “asylum”. But in all three countries it’s not so easy if you are highly qualified and likely to be an unusually valuable citizen

AUSTRALIAN universities are training top scientists in areas of importance to the national economy. Some of these students come from overseas, pay fees for their education and want to work and settle in Australia. They are young, highly qualified and have lived in Australia for some years, so they are making informed judgments when they apply for permanent residence with a view to becoming Australian citizens. They meet all the Department of Immigration and Citizenship criteria for permanent residence. Yet they have been pushed to the end of the immigration queue, where they face several years of delay before being considered for permanent residence. While they are waiting they cannot work in scientific positions of benefit to Australia.

Until mid-2008, students completing PhDs in Australian universities were eligible to be considered for permanent residence within three to six months, with the prospect of being eligible for Australian citizenship after a further two years. Two changes were then made to the skilled migration program. Priority was moved from independent skilled migrants (category 885) to those sponsored by employers, and a critical skills list was created. This list does not include specialisations in advanced areas of science in which recent PhDs have graduated.

As a consequence of these changes in immigration procedures, the permanent residence applications of the majority of PhD research scientists who graduated during 2008 and since that time will now not be considered until at least mid-2011. This pushes the likely time when they can expect a decision to 2012. This means a four-year delay.

While waiting in the immigration queue, these PhD graduates cannot apply for many positions, particularly those of high scientific value and those with long-term career prospects. These require permanent residence, if not Australian citizenship. Both government and private employers are reluctant to apply for immigration status for such positions. Heads of scientific laboratories often cannot spare the resources for the lengthy process involved in immigration sponsorship. Some high-level science positions that PhDs trained in Australia could fill are left empty and scientific work is stalled because PhD graduates waiting for permanent residence are confined to limited temporary positions.

Australia is thus wasting the talents and training of PhD graduates who have proved their ability to work at the leading edge of science.

The scientific problems on which we worked as students in human nutrition and food processing are typical. Our research was focused on improving the taste, texture and health-giving qualities of food so as to encourage consumers to enjoy eating more healthily. Such shifts in diet enable people to reduce the high costs of negative lifestyle diseases, contributing to the long-term sustainability of Australia’s high living standards. On the production side, research in food technology aims to use water, soils, energy and other resources more efficiently to improve environmental sustainability. Other recent graduates whose permanent residence applications are stalled have worked on PhDs in renewable fuel technology, superconductivity, material science, radiopharmaceutical research, the development of vaccines and immunisations, hydrogen economy and other areas of advanced applied science that are important to maintaining Australia’s position at the cutting edge of science and technology.

Studying for advanced degrees in science and contributing through conference papers and publications in peer-refereed journals takes commitment. So does the decision to become an Australian citizen. Yet although we have made these commitments, our lives have been put on hold. We have been told that it will take at least to 2011, and probably longer, before our applications for permanent residence are considered.

Scientists are an important component of any nation’s strength and dynamic potential. The market for scientists is international. There are attractive openings worldwide. The US congress is considering a bill that would prevent PhDs trained in the US from leaving the economy. The bill is aimed at amending immigration legislation to exempt science PhDs from migration quotas. Australia does not need new legislation, but immigration rules and procedures should be amended so that scientists trained in Australia are able to work in their fields of expertise and are not discouraged from becoming Australians.