New Report: Science on the Move

What international migration and movement means for science and scientists

Read the full report here

In June and July 2018, we ran a survey of researchers all over the world. We asked you about how much you travel for work, what sort of barriers you encounter, and how international travel affects both researchers and science itself. Around 2,500 of you responded, sharing your stories of migration and movement; together, you painted a picture of travel as fundamental to modern science and to the people who make it happen.

So what did you tell us?*

1. Three quarters of researchers have moved abroad for work

Researchers are clearly a highly mobile workforce. The majority of those surveyed — over 75% — have lived abroad for training or work, and almost half have done so for more than a year at a time.

2. International movement is linked with career progression

Senior researchers appear to be much more likely to travel than their junior counterparts — around 22% of them identified as high frequency travellers, compared to just 2% of junior researchers.

3. Meanwhile students or researchers in training are the least likely to travel

In fact, 54% of junior researchers surveyed said they very rarely or never travel for work. Trainees were also almost twice as likely to have stayed in one country as their more senior peers.

4. Europe is particularly interconnected

European researchers appear to travel more than any other group, with 82% reporting that they’ve trained or worked in more than one country. They’re also more likely to travel within Europe, rather than outside of it, making Europe a particularly connected research community.

5. Researchers are concerned about political developments

Science does not take place in a vacuum; it’s affected by the wider environment. Many researchers said that political developments — particularly in the UK and US — impact on both their own travel and on science as a whole. Concerns include attitudes towards international movement under the current US administration, and the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

6. International movement is costly, so financial support is important

One of the factors that can make or break a researcher’s decision to travel is funding. Over a quarter of researchers surveyed highlighted living costs in a new country as an obstacle to moving abroad, while four out of five said that financial support has enabled them to visit other countries. This support often comes from funding agencies or from institutions, cited by 70% and 63% of researchers respectively.

7. African and Asian researchers rely more on funders for financial support

We know funding is important, but where that funding comes from appears to vary depending on researchers’ nationalities. African and Asian respondents were less likely to receive funding for travel from their institutions than their North American and European peers, and more likely to use support from external funders.

8. Visas don’t stop most researchers travelling, but they often cause problems

Visas have caused problems for around one in five researchers surveyed. Seventy per cent of researchers who have experienced visa challenges said that they’ve encountered issues with the amount of time it takes to process applications, 68% have experienced issues with the length and complexity of applications, while costs were an issue for almost half of respondents.

9. Visa issues are worse for Asian and African researchers

Particularly when it comes to short term visits, Asian and African researchers appear to be disproportionately affected by visa issues, with one quarter of researchers from these regions having encountered problems for relocation, and more than a third for short-term visits. Asian respondents were four times more likely to have experienced visa issues to short-term international travel, and African researchers three times more likely, than their European and North American peers.

10. Family responsibilities are the single most common barrier to moving abroad

More than a quarter of researchers said that they have been prevented from travelling because of family-related challenges, while one in five have experienced similar problems with short-term visits. Childcare is a key issue, with just 4% of respondents reporting receiving support with childcare and family travel expenses for international visits.

11. African researchers have more issues accessing information on jobs abroad

Lack of information about job opportunities abroad has caused problems for around 17% of researchers, compared with 32% of African researchers. Lack of information was also a problem for 31% of researchers who haven’t lived abroad, and 50% amongst Africans in the same situation.

12. European researchers encounter the fewest issues travelling; African researchers encounter the most

Not all researchers have faced problems with travel, and some nationalities are more likely to encounter issues than others. Overall, around four in five researchers surveyed have encountered problems with international visits, while two in three have had problems moving abroad. However, these figures vary depending on researchers’ nationalities. While 48% of Europeans faced no issue with relocation, that figure dropped to just 28% for African researchers.

13. International movement can strain personal relationships and mental health

Some researchers said that they’ve experienced negative effects as a result of travelling. A number of researchers highlighted the strain that travel can put on personal relationships and mental health, while others reported encountering prejudice and hostility.

14. Virtually all researchers think international movement is good for science

Ninety-six per cent of researchers surveyed think that travel benefits research itself. Many respondents commented on how travel can aid personal development, as well as being fundamental to the wider research endeavour. However, some also said that travel shouldn’t be a requirement for researchers, as it’s not right for everyone and the opportunities are not equally available to all.

15. Researchers cite forging new collaborations, developing ideas and building skills and expertise as key travel outcomes

Eighty per cent of researchers highlighted forming new collaborations as a result of international travel; a further 80% mentioned developing new ideas, while 78% cited gaining technical skills and expertise. Over half mentioned publishing papers, performing experiments, and changing research questions.

What do these results tell us?

It’s clear that while the benefits of movement are known to virtually all researchers, some groups are still being prevented from accessing these benefits. So what can we do?

Based on researcher responses, visa systems could be better streamlined, with greater provision for short-term travel. Meanwhile, childcare is another area in which increased support — such as provisions at conferences or events — could make a big difference. Many researchers would benefit from better recognition of and response to the potential mental health impacts of travelling. And on a logistical level, help with everyday issues like finding housing or opening bank accounts in a new country could be beneficial.

It appears that African and Asian researchers could be better supported in a number of ways, such as tailored funding systems, more information about job opportunities and assistance with visa applications.

Finally, while travel clearly plays an important role in the research endeavour, it’s important that we don’t rely on travel experience as a factor in decisions around funding or promotion, as this could disadvantage some researchers based on their nationality, caring responsibilities or other factors which may inhibit their ability to move around.

By better understanding the obstacles that prevent researchers from travelling, we can help to widen access and improve the underlying systems. The message is loud and clear: international movement is good for science; now let’s make sure it works for researchers.

* ‘Researchers’ in the context of this article refers to those researchers who took part in this study. The UK and India are overrepresented within the sample, as are researchers from the biomedical and health sciences. There may also be sampling biases that affect these results. Read the full report here: 
https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2690.html

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