Mobility and the researcher today

Dr Kritika Samsi

Dr Kritika Samsi

Kritika Samsi, Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London, was recently invited by the Irish University Association to attend the Researcher Careers & Mobility Conference in Dublin on 14-15 May 2013 (hosted by the European Presidency). Here she reflects on mobility and what it means for researchers today.

The Researcher Careers & Mobility Conference was a packed 24 hours, combining plenary sessions, with panel discussions, and interactive workshop discussions. Informative, challenging and controversial, the conference brought up some significant issues affecting researchers in Europe and globally today.

In our workshop on the subject of Mobility, four types of mobility were identified – geographic, when the individual physically moves countries for opportunities elsewhere; virtual, when the individual engages in collaborative work with partners in different countries; inter-sector, when scientists from academia make the move to industry; multi-disciplinary, when scientists moves between different disciplines within or beyond one single field of study.

Instead of focusing on the question “why is mobility good?” – our workshop group chose to discuss “is mobility good?” – clearly highlighting our orientation, and our need to explore thoroughly whether mobility was always necessary, and whether funding bodies give it too much or too little weight.

Geographic mobility is a significant criterion in most EU funding applications – it is considered useful for the applicant to have had international experience, to demonstrate networks and links with international universities, and to show the ability and willingness to move to other countries for collaborative research in the future. This is, no doubt, a wonderful opportunity for many researchers and one that many embrace with open arms. Not surprisingly, most conference participants had experience with mobility and almost all talked positively about it, saying that they were greatly enriched by the experience. Current initiatives at European immigration level, such as the introduction of the scientific visa that fast-tracks scientists from outside the EU to enable them to work in EU universities and research labs in Europe, were seen as a good development in this regard.

We, however, questioned whether geographic mobility was always possible or valuable, for a number of reasons…

The practicalities of moving are enormous – from understanding differences in tax structures, pension arrangements, and setting up other formalities like bank accounts. Although Euraxess provide some very practical assistance with this, there are additional stressors to finding and setting up home again, getting a new driving licence, that individual researchers have to take on themselves. Getting used to another workplace culture and lifestyle also takes time. If the move is not permanent, we wondered whether the set up costs outweighed the benefits, and whether the emphasis on geographic mobility takes all of these into consideration?

Do all of these practicalities weigh more heavily on certain groups of people – i.e. are some groups marginalized for being immobile? Men and women with families where dual jobs and incomes are necessary, researchers with physical disabilities or those reliant on social welfare for other reasons, researchers with responsibilities for caring for elderly family members, may all have commitments they are unable or choose not to disengage from. Does the stringent need for geographic mobility marginalise what are a significant group of researchers that may be forced into choosing alternative careers?

Another question that arose in discussion was whether it was necessary for a researcher to move if the best place to do research in a certain topic was in the very research centre they were currently based in? Did the current over-emphasis of the value of geographic mobility sometimes mean that researchers and funding bodies do not value their current situations, roles and research centres sufficiently, and so they do not capitalize on current opportunities as much as possible?

We also questioned the concept of ‘over-mobility’ – of moving too much and creating a network of international contacts and support, moving from one post-doc position to another in various international universities, but failing to have ‘put down research roots’ and created a track record in one university long enough to progress up the career ladder. While some agreed that geographic mobility often results in a drop in salary and grade, others felt that this was not always the case and moving to another university/country could be a promotion, thereby increasing the chances of moving up the career ladder.

We debated this and other issues in relation to Horizon 2020 – which means that shorter-term grants are likely to be available under the new funding framework, encouraging those previously discouraged from committing to long-term mobility to apply for shorter spaces of time in other locations. There is also likely to be greater emphasis on the other types of mobility. The effective use of technology may make it less necessary for people to physically move to achieve successful collaboration.

We finished hopeful that this may be the way forward to achieving the right kind of mobility for the right reasons.

Dr Kritika Samsi is Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London. She is also active in the Voice of the Researchers (VoR) network, which aims to act as a bridge between researchers and policy-makers, bringing together researchers and enabling them to take an active role in shaping the European Research Area.