Obstacles and incentives to researcher mobility

A research study into mobility among European researchers has found that about half the researcher population had not been mobile during their careers. A report of the study says that among the most important incentives for individual researcher mobility is career development.

Nordforsk is an organisation under the Nordic Council of Ministers with a secretariat in Oslo. Its task is to foster collaboration in research and research education between the Nordic countries, the Baltic states and the Northwestern part of Russia.

In a new report, Crossing Borders – Obstacles and incentives to researcher mobility, Nordforsk describes recent trends and rates of mobility among Nordic researchers compared with the rest of the EU and includes a survey of mobility patterns from 1,900 CVs collected from Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish sources.

The mobility of researchers study is based on interviews with individual Nordic academics who have been internationally mobile or mobile between academia and industry – ’inter-sectoral mobility’ in EU terminology.

It found that among the EU-27, the rate of mobile Nordic researchers seemed to be somewhat lower than that of non-Nordic researchers – 57% versus 47% of those from the Nordic countries. Another major difference was that Nordic researchers were more mobile in the social sciences and humanities (50%) and the non-Nordic researchers in science and technology (59%).

The study also found that about half the researcher population had not been mobile during their careers. Among the most important incentives for individual researcher mobility was career development.

Professor Krista Varantola, a former member of the Nordforsk board and chancellor of the University of Tampere, wrote a foreword to the report reflecting on how the organisation could promote researcher mobility across the Nordic region.

Varantola states: “It is hardly possible today to advance from a non-permanent postdoc position to a permanent professorial position at a university without a stay abroad. This is in particular true in medicine and the biosciences but increasingly so in all disciplines. Also, a stay at an international centre is a way to establish future networks and to start an independent phase in a research career.”

During the interviews, the researchers who took part characterised the time spent abroad as “pockets of productivity” and “stepping out of the shadows of senior researchers”. One researcher said: “I wanted to leave after my PhD. I think that many people feel it’s a kind of liberation from your supervisor, no matter if the relations with them were good, as in my case.”

This desire for independence was mentioned by a significant number of the respondents as a major reason for being internationally mobile. But it could mean the Nordic countries are nurturing an academic culture where a desire for independence and autonomy among younger scientists is not promoted during their research training.

The effect of this culture of prolonged dependency for younger researchers, “living in the shadow of the supervisor”, was not discussed in the report. But it could be part of the explanation for the difficulties facing those in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland in obtaining a starting grant in the European Research Council, or ERC, programme, where proven independence from mentors and supervisors is one of the major competing criteria.

The success rate for the ERC starting grant scheme in 2007-13 was 4.7% for Norway, 8% for Denmark, 6% for Sweden and 3% for Finland – compared with 11% for the Netherlands. The four Nordic countries filed in total 3,281 ERC starting grant applications but succeeded in only 197 of these, while the Netherlands sent half the number of applications yet received almost as many grants, 192 or an 11% success rate.

The two papers comprising the report offer considerable information on possible obstacles and incentives for increased mobility. But it is not easy to see how inter-Nordic mobility could be further stimulated.

Some country specific measures for increased international mobility deserve to be mentioned: In Denmark since 2008, the Danish government has stipulated that all PhD students must “participate in active research environments, including stays in other, primarily foreign, research institutions”.

In Norway, adjunct professorships called professor-II have a longer tradition than in other Nordic countries, where a professor works 20% of the time for the university, normally engaged for a five year period.

In 2011, 1,342 such professor-II positions were registered, and 158 of these had other employment in industry. A significant number were foreign citizens in a Norwegian institution through a collaborative agreement with an institution abroad, used in many cases as a facilitation instrument for Norwegian young researchers.

Sabbatical leaves are more commonly taken in Iceland and Norway than in the other Nordic countries. In Iceland, researchers with tenure are normally granted six month’s sabbatical while in Norway a one-year sabbatical is granted every sixth or seventh year and – in many cases – these periods open up longer research stays abroad.

Denmark has established six innovation centres, in Silicon Valley, Shanghai, Munich, New Delhi, Bangalore, Sao Paulo and Seoul to facilitate links between researchers and research institutions.

Intra-Nordic mobility is higher among Norwegian and Swedish researchers compared to non-Nordic researcher mobility to a Nordic country.

Among the major drivers and motivations for international mobility the report mentions personal capacity building through networks; contact with new colleagues and new ways of working; more time and “latitude for action” to focus and become more productive; and strategic reasons for stays at prestigious universities.

The report notes that there is a significant overlap between international and sector mobility. In particular, sector mobility tends to correlate with international mobility.

On the other hand, among the main barriers to mobility, the report mentions family reasons: insufficient funding in Denmark, Iceland and Finland to bring family along limits mobility as does a lack of independence, and a lack of permanent research positions.