Professor Andrew Holmes is Foreign Secretary of the Australian Academy of Science. He is Melbourne Laureate Professor of the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne and a CSIRO Fellow.

Australia is a competitive, collaborative top 20 country in science. But unless we take a strategic approach to international scientific collaboration, we will fall to small power science status.

The General Electric 2011 Global Innovation Barometer suggests 40% of all innovation in the next decade will be driven by collaboration across institutional and national boundaries. Australia's relatively modest research investment (about $9.4 billion annually) compared with that of our Asian neighbours places greater emphasis on the need to collaborate.

Australia has a closing window of opportunity. Our intellectual and structural capital give us a comparative advantage – foreign scientists, particularly in Asia, want to collaborate with us. But without strategic engagement, this is far less likely to be the case in 10 years' time, given global research investment trajectories, growth in foreign student education in developed countries and increasing international competition to collaborate.

Also of advantage is Australia's considerable standing in terms of esteem, discovery and our ability to solve problems. Our researchers are world class. With just 0.3% of world population we produce 4% of the world's most highly cited publications. Our economy is now dominated by the service sector, a growth trend of recent decades that has been supported by the useful and timely application of science to add value and enable new services.

Our scientific expertise is well recognised within the OECD and increasingly in Asia where research and development spending is growing rapidly. In 2009 Asia's spending accounted for one-third of that spent globally on R&D, up from one-quarter in 1999. According to the US National Science Board, real growth over the past 10 years in China's overall R&D remains exceptionally high, growing at about 20% each year. The Chinese biotech industry alone is projected to be worth 4 trillion yuan (AU$620 billion) by 2015.

The Australian Academy of Science has long argued that Australia's international scientific engagement must be strengthened through strong government support, as global scientific endeavour ramps up and shifts towards Asia. Enhanced strategic ties to international knowledge production are essential if we're to capture benefits and advantages for Australia.

Australia has some geographic (and linguistic) advantage in Asia but other leading scientific nations are responding to the same shifting dynamics. For example, there are about 50 US Foreign Service staff located in US embassies and consulates around the world designated as Environment, Science and Technology and Health (ESTH) officers.

In China, for instance, the US has ESTH officers in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou. These diplomatic positions are supplemented by more than 20 employees of US technical agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Energy, who foster collaborative efforts with China. They are supported by about 150 additional staff from the US State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

The US State Department's 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review confirmed that, in a world of increasingly fast-paced change, 'science and technology must be enlisted in an unprecedented fashion.' In November 2009 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of three prominent US scientists as science and technology envoys to bolster collaboration with Muslim communities around the world. Professor Bruce Alberts, a former President of the US National Academy of Sciences, has just completed his term as a Science Envoy focusing on Indonesia.

By contrast, Australia has two Minister-Counsellors, one in Brussels and one in Washington DC, to provide support for the Commonwealth's Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education portfolio. Reflecting the export value of tertiary education services, we do have an international education network which has a dozen officers. Mostly in Asia, they manage bilateral and multilateral education and training engagements. With resources widely acknowledged to be insufficient, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade undertakes excellent but small science diplomacy projects, such as providing speaking opportunities in Asia for eminent Australian scientists.

Australia's international engagement efforts have been diminished in the wake of recent federal budget decisions. One unfortunate consequence of the 2011 termination of the productive 10-year International Scientific Linkages program is the lack of strategic international guidance and support to direct our national research effort. Without national coordination we are not able to make the most of the 96% of high-citation research that occurs overseas.

Without doubt, a strategic effort to engage scientifically in the Asian Century should be a national priority.

Photo by Flickr user Wysz.