Understanding Researcher Mobility

Scientists of South Wales Immunology display flags of their home countries

BSI South Wales staff display flags of their home countries

Photo by South Wales Immunology, used with permission

Research for the Royal Society found that, as an attractive destination for researchers, the UK benefits by gaining access to additional skills and expertise. Most of the mobility to and from the UK is with a small set of western countries, the US and Germany in particular.

Source countries also benefit, as mobile researchers tend to retain productive links with their home countries and may also return home, bringing additional skills and expertise.

Background

International mobility is an important part of the UK research system. UK researchers gain skills and experience by working in other countries, and take part in international collaborations, and British institutions and industries rely on researchers from other countries. To help support the UK research system, it is crucial to understand the factors that influence mobility, its benefits, and what makes the UK an attractive place to conduct research.

In a global research environment, collaboration and mobility need to spread beyond national borders. As a small country which punches above its weight in terms of scientific excellence, mobility is particularly important to UK science. The UK has a highly mobile and international researcher population, and mobility has become an even higher priority issue for researchers since the results of the UK’s EU referendum (Brexit).

Goals

The Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, commissioned RAND Europe to help develop a better understanding of researcher mobility patterns and drivers, with a particular focus on mobility to and from the UK.

Methodology

The study consisted of two parts:

  • A literature review on what is currently known about researchers’ mobility in the UK and Europe, and
  • A survey of nearly 1,300 researchers working in Higher Education Institutions, Public Sector Research Establishments and Research Institutes in the UK, conducted in early 2017.

Findings

  • The UK is an attractive destination for researchers. As a destination country, the UK benefits from mobility by gaining access to additional skills and expertise. Most of the mobility to and from the UK is with a small set of western countries, and the US and Germany in particular.
  • There are also benefits for source countries – mobile researchers tend to retain productive links with their home countries and may also return home, bringing additional skills and expertise.
  • Patterns of mobility differ by gender, discipline nationality and career stage, while barriers to mobility depend on individual circumstances.
  • Researchers’ decisions to move are complex and involve a range of personal and professional factors; however, it appears that professional motivations are the main drivers of mobility. Most researchers feel that there is an expectation that good researchers are internationally mobile.
  • Mobility is associated with improvements in researcher’s professional development and academic performance, though causality is difficult to establish. This is partly because the benefits and disadvantages of mobility tend to align with researchers’ motivations.
  • Although there was not a direct question about the UK’s decision to leave the EU and its impact on researcher mobility, Brexit emerged as an important area of concern for researchers. The UK vote to leave the EU led respondents to consider their position in the UK in both a personal and professional capacity, with some speculating that it will pose a barrier to mobility
  • Further research is needed to better understand international mobility, particularly regarding industry researchers, and to untangle the different outcomes and drivers of mobility between different groups and in different contexts.