Research excellence and capacity building: Understanding the current trends and issues in researcher mobility

Researcher mobility is important for two main reasons. First, the existence of huge and complex global issues today – including health and environmental challenges – requiring international and collaborative research efforts to try to find effective solutions. The second is that mobility helps researchers, especially young researchers and those at an early stage of their career, to develop professionally, academically and personally by enabling them to acquire new skills and experiences, and thus become more effective researchers.

When considering researcher mobility, most people might think of it purely in physical or geographical terms – that is, researchers physically travelling from one country or institution to another. Whilst these activities are central to the concept of mobility, there are however other types of mobility that researchers can engage in and which are becoming increasingly important. Three examples are:

1) Intersectoral mobility – where researchers move across and between academia, industry and the public sector.

2) Interdisciplinary mobility – where researchers move across and between research fields.

3) Virtual mobility – made possible by the internet and defined by the European Science Foundation as ‘cross-border research cooperation based on verifiable signs of collaboration and participation. The source of information should always be independent of the researcher to be considered.’

New concepts of mobility

As working patterns have become more flexible in recent years – for example, in the form of part-time working – so thought has been given to how new working arrangements can be used to promote researcher mobility. One such concept is that of the combined part-time researcher role, where a researcher divides their working time between two or more institutions. One example is the so-called ‘Professor 2’ post where an employee in industry or a health institution has a ‘Professor 2’ position at a university as an addition to their main post, in which they might spend 20% or more of their time. This type of arrangement has proven effective for activities such as knowledge transfer, networking and research collaboration, and permits researchers to collaborate when they might otherwise not be able to due to other professional and personal commitments.

What are the challenges to mobility?

It is now considered very important for researchers to have mobility in order to benefit both themselves and the development of research in general. However, mobility is not always easy to achieve, particularly for early-career researchers. A 2014 study by Nordforsk, an organisation of the Nordic Council of Ministers, found that about half the researcher cohort they examined had not been mobile during their careers. A particular problem the study identified for junior researchers was a type of dependency culture where young researchers were so tied to supervisors or mentors that it was difficult for them to move on to new opportunities. Other, more general, impediments to mobility found by the study included researchers’ family commitments, and there being too few permanent research positions.

Impact of Brexit

A further potential barrier to researcher mobility centres on the recent decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Subsequent debate about immigration controls and changing – or even ending – the free movement of people reflects the significant impact these decisions would have for researcher mobility, in the physical/geographical sense at least. The EU has done much to support researcher mobility over the years. In a recent report, the Royal Society gives the example of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, which assisted 3,454 UK-based researchers to move within the UK and to other EU and non-EU countries between 2007 and 2014. It has also helped many come to the UK to work – some 800 Chinese nationals, for instance.

Of course, as of the end of 2016 Brexit has not officially been implemented and anything said about future relationships is speculative. However, Sultan Orazbayev, a PhD candidate at University College London, gives a flavour of the concerns researchers have in a blog written shortly before the June referendum. He points to research which shows that researchers in countries which impose visa restrictions suffer reduced scientific collaboration. He also cites a comparative study of European and US researcher mobility which found that, even before Brexit, researchers in Europe moved less often within Europe than US researchers within and between American states; a situation Brexit could make worse depending on the new terms negotiated. Orazbayev worries that any restrictions on freedom of movement would lead to fewer collaborations for UK universities, make them less attractive to researchers and, ultimately, see them drop down global university rankings and league tables. It remains to be seen whether comes to be but what is recognised is that a prolonged period of uncertainty created by Brexit will do little to further the cause of researcher mobility.

Support services for mobility

In light of the current barriers to mobility and the potential impact of Brexit, it is likely that researchers will find themselves relying on support and information structures more than ever. In Europe, the main source of help and advice for researchers wishing to study or work in Europe is EURAXESS, a joint initiative of the European Commission and countries participating in the EU’s Framework Programme for Research. It:

  • offers access to job and other opportunities;
  • manages a network of over 500 Service Centres in 40 European countries offering advice and information;
  • offers a Rights service providing information about the employment and other rights and obligations of researchers and employers; and
  • provides a networking tool for researchers outside Europe wishing to work in Europe or collaborate with researchers in Europe.

Other organisations providing support and information on researcher mobility include:

  • the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc), which provides a newsletter and runs a mobility workgroup that investigates issues concerning mobility; and
  • the British Council, which offers a Researcher Links scheme giving early-career researchers the chance to forge international links through fully-funded workshops and travel grants. Researcher Links is also run under the UK’s Newton Fund which was set up to establish science and innovation partnerships to promote economic development in partner countries.

Such services are extremely useful for researchers and it is important for them to be maintained and enhanced. Although advances in communications technology will no doubt allow researchers to do more collaboration remotely, physical mobility will always be important for researchers in terms of gaining experience, skills and interacting with colleagues in different countries. It is to be hoped, therefore, that everything possible will continue to be done at both national and international level to make the process of researcher mobility as smooth and straightforward as possible. This calls for more action in areas such as open recruitment and wider accessibility of grants, meeting the welfare and pension needs of researchers, and opportunities for career and skills development. If such measures are taken, researchers can worry less about issues such as bureaucracy and concentrate more on what really matters – their research.

One such platform delivering effective support to universities and research institutes is the RESEARCHconnect service, a complete, specialised funding solution that offers a user-friendly, accurate and continuously updated package built for and designed by the academic research community.

For the latest insight and access to our research whitepapers including ‘Demonstrating Research Impact’ and ‘Extending Your Global Reach to Alternative International Funders’ don’t forget to view the RESEARCHconnect Intelligence page and follow RESEARCHconnect on Twitter.

By Jack Hood, RESEARCHconnect

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