Scientific research extends well beyond borders and its internationalization has been a major boon for collaboration and advancement. Last month, Switzerland made news by putting a cap on immigrant labour that would prevent mobility into their scientific research environment. This met with much criticism and resulted in the EU banning Swiss applications to its Horizon 2020 grant applications (a good account of the situation appeared in the Huffington Post earlier this week).
Movement amongst academic circles is a good thing – there is no doubt about that. Ideas, techniques, approaches and networks all need to be shared in order to facilitate the quick transfer of new research findings. The hard cap by Switzerland represents an extreme version of policy in the opposite direction, but it did stimulate me to ask the question: “Why should movement be associated with every stage of academic career?”
In this post, I suggest that we have gone too far in encouraging trainee relocation; individual national funding agencies risk losing international talent through an unjustified “need to move.” I do not doubt that staying at the same institution for many years can stifle the breadth of thinking and streamline approaches to solving questions (in a negative way), but hard rules about transplanting talent do not seem a prudent course of action. Many examples exist at the fellowship level (e.g., the prestigious Marie Curie Fellowships) which restrict applicants to those who wish to move countries.
Secondly, many schools (including Canadian schools) seem to employ a similar approach rather heavy handedly when it comes to hiring and they are often accused of not hiring their own graduates in what is viewed as an effort to validate themselves as an “academic destination.”
The cohort of researchers that are being ignored in such policies, however, are those that have already moved (sometimes multiple times) and major questions emerge: How many moves are sufficient? How much research is wasted by moving frequently?
Moving costs are not trivial
Yes, it costs money to move, but more importantly, it costs time. It is frustrating to watch established young investigators get evicted from their first academic posting despite excellent publications (a common practice at bigger institutions). It forces another portion of unproductive research time on these young scholars and amounts to a waste of major public funds.
A second source of incredible monetary wastage is that spent on recruiting people who have no intention of coming to another institution – I’ve been given the advice from several senior faculty to “get a job offer anywhere else” and then schools will finally pay attention to your application. This parlaying of offers and the subsequent politicking take up the valuable energies and efforts of young scholars in the prime of their careers – when they should be generating new ideas and research.
Researchers are people
One thing that is often forgotten is that early career academics are in the middle of their lives – postdoctoral fellows often leave the country in which they’ve completed their PhD to acquire new training in a new environment. In the life sciences this often means a 3-6 year tenure in a different country in their late 20s to early 30s. Uprooting at this point is not ideal, especially if these scholars are married and have children or houses. Any decision to leave will be weighed carefully against a decision to simply “move home.” This is further compounded by the fact that most positions these days have no promise of permanence and may even result in yet another move five years after beginning one’s group.
As an international researcher, one gets encouraged by funding agencies to uproot from the place you’ve traveled to (very far away from home sometimes!) in order move to another institution within the same country (e.g., UK funders would much prefer me to move to Oxford, Manchester or London than stay in Cambridge). These types of rules at funding agencies actively discourage international scholars from remaining in the foreign country and do not recognize the fact that they have moved several times in the past and derived many of the benefits of moving already.
While I’ve picked out international scholars, the same logic applies to many other cohorts of people who would ideally stay in the same city for the next stage of career (e.g., parents or people who have “unmovable partners”). It is short-sighted policy making to discourage great scholars based on such circumstances and funding agencies should be hiring the best people, not simply those that fit the mobility mould.