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25.07.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Scientists have never been so mobile

© Atul Loke. International students studying alongside Indian students at the Bangalore campus of the Indian Institute of Management.

Switzerland is currently negotiating its new relationship with the European Union (EU), following a popular vote in February 2014 restricting immigration to the country, which ‘offends one of the guiding principles of the EU, the free movement of persons’. The UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 observes that ‘Switzerland has built its recipe for success in science on developing a sturdy international network. It is ironic that the fallout from the Swiss referendum of 2014 may jeopardize this proud achievement’.

The Swiss vote – and the more recent popular vote in the UK in favour of a Brexit – are exceptional cases, both because these two countries are beacons for international talent and because the trend worldwide is towards greater scientific mobility, rather than less. The number of international students rose by 46% between 2005 and 2013, from 2.8 million to 4.1 million, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Many governments are accompanying this movement, out of a desire to develop a knowledge economy or maintain their international competitiveness.

It is no coincidence that the USA, UK and France hosted the largest contingents of international PhD students in science and engineering in 2012. The USA alone accounts for half of these students (49%), followed by the UK (9%) and France (7%). The USA also stands out for the small share of its doctoral students who choose to study abroad, just 1.7%, compared to 12.3% of French PhD students and 18.0% of Canadians.

Almost half (44%) of Vietnamese students seek their doctorate abroad, as part of the government’s strategy for adding 20 000 PhD-holders to the faculty of its universities by 2020. Saudi Arabia even has more doctoral students enrolled abroad than at home.

Growing mobility at doctoral level is, in turn, driving scientific mobility. For the UNESCO Science Report, ‘this is perhaps one of the most important trends of recent times.’

Often, policies favouring mobility are a two-way street, with governments encouraging their own students to gain expertise abroad, while simultaneously striving to attract young researchers or confirmed experts. Brazil’s Science without Borders programme, for instance, sent 70 000 undergraduate students abroad between 2011 and 2014. Researchers employed by private companies could also apply for specialized training abroad within this scheme. In parallel, the programme sought to attract young foreign researchers interested in settling in Brazil or in establishing partnerships with Brazilian researchers in priority areas. The programme was discontinued in late 2015, after the Brazilian economy entered recession.

In China, the desire to develop world-class universities has inspired the government to raise the number of scholarships for study abroad from fewer than 3 000 in 2003 to over 13 000 in 2010. In parallel, the Thousand Talents programme offers an enticing benefits package to Chinese expatriates and foreign experts under the age of 40 to encourage them to work in China’s universities, institutes and enterprises.

Malaysia hosts numerous multinational firms specializing in electronics and engineering but suffers from a shortage of skilled personnel. It plans to become the world’s sixth-biggest destination for international students by 2020. With 2.9% of all international students in science and engineering choosing Malaysia for their PhD, the country already ties with Japan for eighth place, behind Germany and Switzerland. The largest contingents of degree-seeking international students come from Iran, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of foreign students in Malaysia almost doubled to 56 203. The government plans to host 200 000 foreign students by 2020.

South African universities attracted 61 000 foreign students in 2009. Students from the other 14 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) pay the same fees as their local counterparts, meaning that the South African taxpayer subsidizes their studies. This policy is in line with the SADC Protocol on Education and Training (1997), which was designed to facilitate mobility. Nearly half of the researchers in South Africa (49%) are transitory, spending fewer than two years in the country’s research centres.

The EU needs more researchers, including from beyond the region

The EU requires public-funded bodies to advertise vacancies internationally and is introducing a ‘scientific visa’ to slash the red tape for non-EU nationals submitting job applications. These policies have been inspired by the need to augment the number of researchers in the EU, a significant share of whom will have to come from third countries. The report recalls that ‘studies conducted across Europe have shown that a high level of mobility by qualified personnel across countries and between the public and private sectors contributes to the overall professionalism of the labour force, as well as to the innovative performance of the economy’.

Private science is, itself, becoming more mobile, as firms increasingly relocate their research laboratories abroad. The information technology industry accounts for six out of ten patents for new inventions in India, 92% of which are secured by foreign-owned multinational firms. A 2014 survey by the European Commission found that EU firms contemplating where to relocate their R&D considered the USA to be more attractive in terms of market size and growth rate, whereas they preferred EU countries for the quality of their research personnel and the level of public support for R&D via grants, direct funding and fiscal incentives. Firms also cited knowledge-sharing opportunities with universities and public organizations in the EU as a key criterion.

One of the EU’s key strategies for attracting top researchers from around the world are the grants offered by the European Research Council, the first pan-European funding body for basic research. Most grantees are nationals from the country of their host institution but two countries host a large number of foreign grantees: the UK (426) and Switzerland (237). The smallest share of foreign grant-holders among EU countries are to be found in Greece (3%), Hungary (8%) and Italy (9%). Some nationalities seem to prefer to work abroad rather than at home: around 55 % of the Greek, Austrian and Irish grantees are based in foreign countries. The absolute numbers are particularly high for Germany and Italy, with 253 and 178 nationals respectively hosted by institutions abroad.

According to the UNESCO Science Report, almost 600 research institutions from 29 countries – both EU member states and countries associated with the Seventh Framework Programme – have hosted at least one grantee since the European Research Council was founded in 2007. This is symptomatic of a wider trend in Europe. The report notes that ‘around 31% of post-doctoral researchers in the EU have worked abroad for over three months at least once in the past 10 years’.

Switzerland has become a beacon for international talent

Switzerland has become a beacon for international talent: one in three of its doctorate-holders were born elsewhere and close to half of research personnel in the private sector are non-Swiss. This small, landlocked country accounts for less than 0.1% of the world population but hosts 3.1% of all international PhD students in science and engineering, just behind Germany (3.5%), making Switzerland the seventh-most popular destination for this category of student. Most foreigners are of European origin but Switzerland is also a top destination for PhD students from Brazil, Canada, India, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and the USA, according to the UNESCO Science Report.

Students and businesses are drawn to Switzerland for the quality of its research infrastructure and high level of commitment to research (3% of GDP), the business-friendly environment and skilled workforce, the fruit of world-class universities and excellent vocational training. In the ten years to 2012, Switzerland saw its world share of triadic patents – those granted simultaneously by the US, Japanese and European patent offices – rise from 1.8% to 2.2%, the greatest leap among high-income countries.

A bilateral agreement with the EU allows Switzerland to take advantage of the main EU instruments in place for research, including the seven-year framework programmes for research and innovation, the Future and Emerging Technologies programme, the grants of the European Research Council and the Erasmus programme for student exchange. In return, Switzerland adheres to the four cornerstones of the EU’s single market: the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.

‘Switzerland’s political ties to the EU are more tenuous than those of the other three members of the European Free Trade Association’ observes the report. This is because Switzerland is unable to participate in the European Economic Area, owing to a negative vote in a national referendum in November 1992, even though Switzerland had participated actively in drawing up the treaty that created the European Economic Area. Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway, on the other hand, have all signed the treaty. This entitles them ‘to participate in the EU’s main research activities as associated states on the same footing as any EU member state’.

Could Switzerland become a lone(ly) wolf in Europe?

‘Switzerland’s relations with the EU have been jeopardized recently by yet another referendum,’ recalls the UNESCO Science Report. Shortly after the vote in February 2014, the Swiss government informed the EU and Croatia that it was unable to sign a protocol to its agreement with the European Commission that would have automatically extended this agreement to the new EU member state. Giving Croatian citizens unrestricted access to the Swiss job market would have been incompatible with the ‘yes’ vote of the Swiss on the ‘stop mass immigration’ initiative’.

‘The EU reacted without delay’, observes the report. ‘The European Commission excluded Switzerland from research programmes potentially worth hundreds of millions of euros for its universities and suspended negotiations on Switzerland’s participation as a full member in the world’s largest and best-funded research and innovation programme, the € 77 billion Horizon 2020. The European Commission also suspended Switzerland from the Erasmus student exchange programme. According to the ATS news agency, some 2 600 Swiss students took advantage of Erasmus in 2011 and Switzerland played host that same year to about 2 900 foreign students within the same EU-funded programme’.

‘Thanks to intense diplomatic activity behind the scenes and fruitful bilateral discussions, the situation was looking less dramatic by mid-2015’, observes the report. ‘In the end, Switzerland will be able to participate in Excellent Science, the central pillar of Horizon 2020. This means that its universities will be entitled to benefit from grants offered by the European Research Council and by the Future and Emerging Technologies programme, among other instruments.

This is welcome news for the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), which is leading one of the two flagship projects of the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies Programme, namely the Human Brain Project, which seeks to deepen our understanding of how the brain functions.’ The other EU flagship project is developing the new materials of the future, such as graphene.

‘So far, so good, you might say, but the Sword of Damocles is hanging over the Swiss government. The current agreement is limited in time and will expire in December 2016. If Switzerland doesn’t come up with an immigration policy in accord with the principle of the free movement of persons by then, it will lose its status as a fully associated member of Horizon 2020 and retain the status of a third party in Erasmus+. Should that happen, even though it won’t affect Swiss engagement in Europe (such as CERN) beyond EU projects, Switzerland will still become a very lonely wolf in Europe’s S&T landscape.’

Andreas Mortensen, a professor of materials science who is EPFL’s vice-provost for research, told the Guardian newspaper in November 2015(1) that ‘being kicked out of the European Research Council in particular, even temporarily, is a major blow. You’re interviewing a top young professor, number one in his field. He may well have a grant from the European Research Council – it’s one of the best things you can have on your CV – but it, and the €1.5 million it comes with, can only be used in the EU. How likely is he to come here now, if that means saying goodbye to his ERC [grant]? We’re cut off not only from the funding, but from the talent. It’s harder to recruit’.

Beyond Europe, a trend towards greater scientific integration

A growing number of economic communities around the world are fostering scientific mobility to facilitate scientific integration. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), for instance, has adopted a Plan of Action on Science, Technology and Innovation 2016–2020 which ‘aims to strengthen scientific capacity in member states by fostering exchanges among researchers both within the region and beyond,’ according to the UNESCO Science Report. ASEAN covers a vast, populous region encompassing Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

‘The founding of the ASEAN Economic Community in late 2015 is intended to ‘transform this vast region into a common market and production base,’ observes the report. ‘The planned removal of restrictions to the cross-border movement of people and services is expected to spur co-operation in science and technology and, thereby, reinforce the emerging Asia–Pacific knowledge hub’.

The report considers that ‘the greater mobility of skilled personnel should be a boon for the region and enhance the role of the ASEAN University Network, which already counts 30 members’.

In sub-Saharan Africa, too, the mood is towards greater regional integration. The continent is currently preparing the groundwork for the African Economic Community, which should be in place by 2028. To this end, regional communities are consolidating ties. The five members of the East African Community (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda), for instance, formed a common market in 2010. They plan to establish a common currency by 2023 and are developing a Common Higher Education Area that has been inspired by the EU model. In 2015, the East African Community signed a Tripartite Free Trade Agreement with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa grouping 20 states and the Southern African Development Community grouping 15 states.

Economic integration in Africa is being hampered, however, by the similar structure of economies (minerals and agriculture), poor economic diversification and low levels of intraregional trade: just 12% of total African trade, compared to about 55% in Asia and 70% in Europe. However, the report argues that ‘the most formidable obstacle of all to regional integration is probably the resistance of individual governments to relinquishing any national sovereignty’.

The UNESCO Science Report observes that ‘the development of regional programmes in science, technology and innovation is high on the list of priorities’ of the African Union and regional bodies. Scientific mobility is being fostered through the continent’s expanding networks of centres of excellence like that in biosciences, through which participating institutes offer their facilities for subregional use.

One persistent obstacle to scientific mobility is the difficulty African scientists face in travelling freely around the continent. This point was stressed by the UNESCO Science Report 2010. It observed that ‘the question of African countries easing immigration regulations and procedures in order to facilitate the mobility of international experts, and African expatriates in particular, has figured repeatedly on the agenda of African Union summits without ever being resolved’. In 2014, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda took a step towards easing travel restrictions by adopting a single tourist visa.

The 2015 edition of the UNESCO Science Report argues that ‘an important aspect of economic integration [in Africa] would be the transition from national innovation systems to a single regional innovation system… The opening up of borders to the free movement of people and services would also enable informal cross-border pools of tacit knowledge and social capital to emerge’. The report stresses ‘the increasingly urgent requirement for Africa to engage in a unified manner in a world that is increasingly characterized by economic blocs and large emerging economic powers’.

In Latin America, the new Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has embraced the free movement of goods, services, capital and people around the subcontinent. Modelled on the EU, it plans to establish a common parliament and currency for its 12 members.

Within UNASUR, governments have been discussing the idea of standardizing university degrees in member countries to foster student mobility. UNASUR members account for some of the most popular student destinations in Latin America, with Brazil attracting about 5000 students a year from the region and Argentina and Chile about 2000 each. Half the students at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics in Rio de Janeiro, for instance, come from abroad, mainly from other Latin American countries – and the 50 teaching staff come from 14 countries.

The great majority of mobile Latin Americans study outside the region, however. It is estimated that four times more students are based in Western Europe or North America than in other Latin American countries. In 2013, the Mexican Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) and the Organization of American States created a joint programme offering 500 scholarships up to 2018 for postgraduate education in science and engineering, in order to facilitate student exchanges within the Americas.

(1) Henley, J. (2015) Whatever you do, don't become Switzerland, Swiss academics tell UK. The Guardian, 11 November.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030

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