First major survey of mobility patterns of scientists in 16 countries

Switzerland has the highest proportion of immigrant scientists – 56.7% – of 16 ‘core’ countries surveyed in the first comprehensive international study of the mobility patterns of scientists, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US.

Canada has the second highest proportion of immigrant scientists (46.5%), followed by Australia (44.5%), the United States (38.4%) and Sweden (37.6%). India has the lowest rate (0.8%), followed by Italy (3.0%), Japan (5.0%), Brazil (7.1%) and Spain (7.3%).

The Global Science, or GlobSci, project surveyed corresponding authors of articles published in 2009 in four fields of science – biology, chemistry, Earth and environmental sciences, and materials – who were studying or working in one of 16 ‘core’ countries.

It defined immigrant scientists as those who were living outside the country at the age of 18.

The results were published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last month in a working paper, “Foreign Born Scientists: Mobility patterns for sixteen countries”, by Chiara Franzoni of Politecnico di Milano and Giuseppe Scellato of Politecnico di Torino in Italy, and Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in America.

In all 17,182 scientists participated in the web-based survey in the 16 countries. The overall response rate was 35.6%, varying from 63% in Italy to 26% in Germany, and resulted in 16,827 completed responses.

The countries are Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the United States. China is not represented, since efforts to file the web-based survey did not succeed.

The survey helps to fill a gap in information about the role of foreign-born scientists and their countries of origin, which has been difficult to map because of problems with incomparable date, incomplete registration and tracing people working outside their country of origin.

Some interesting mobility patterns among scientists were observed, such as the dominant ‘neighbouring country effect’.

Thus, for example, in Denmark and The Netherlands, Germany is the most likely country of origin of foreign-born scientists, and Argentina, Colombia and Peru are important source countries for scientists in Brazil. America is a major source country for foreign scientists in Canada, and in Japan the most likely countries of origin are China and South Korea.

The authors found a high rate of foreign-raised scientists studying and working in a large number of countries. “To put it bluntly, the United States is not that atypical when it comes to a strong reliance on foreign talent,” according to Franzoni, Scellato and Stephan.

“But there are a number of countries – including India, Italy, Japan, Brazil and Spain – where foreign scientists and engineers are extremely rare.

“The survey finds considerable variation in emigration patterns across countries. Swiss and Indian scientists are the most mobile; those from the United States the least mobile. The survey also documents that, for virtually all the core countries studied, the United States is the dominant destination country.”

The authors found that “regardless of the country, opportunities to improve one’s future or the availability of outstanding faculty, colleagues or research teams prove the most important reasons for immigration”.

Policy levers also appeared to be “extremely important in attracting scientists to work or study abroad”.

But they played little role in attracting emigrants back to their home country. “For these returnees, and regardless of country, ‘personal or family reasons’ are the most important factor influencing the decision to return,” write the report authors.

“It does not follow, however, that countries have no ability to influence the return decisions of emigrants living abroad.” Emigrant scientists from some countries reported that whether or not they might return in the future would partly depend on job market conditions.

The authors concede that GlobSci has limitations. It was limited to researchers who had published in one of the 16 countries, was limited to four fields, and excluded China due to problems in administering the survey. Also, the survey only provided a snapshot of scientists in 2009 and did not make comparisons over time.