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International mobility in academia

By Antje Wegner

The debate on the migration of scientists from Germany was resumed latest when biochemist Thomas Südhof was awarded the Nobel Prize and the controversy as to whether a German or an American scientist had been added to the annals of science erupted.

International mobility in academia© andreart - iStockphoto.comDoes the growing mobility of scientists really encourage their migration abroad?
While crisis-stricken countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece are currently experiencing almost an exodus among their highly qualified young workers and mainly the Eastern European countries have suffered from the migration of scientists in the past, Germany remains neither a clear winner nor a clear loser in the battle for the "best brains".

Last year, the American National Bureau of Economic Research presented a systematic study on the mobility of scientists in 16 countries. Switzerland topped the list of mobility winners with 57 per cent foreign scientists, followed by Canada, Australia, Sweden and the United States. In contrast, India was the country with the most scientists living abroad. With around 25 per cent, foreign scientists working in the country and around 22 per cent of German scientists working abroad, Germany presented a good balance.

German universities also recorded strong growth in the number of non-German employees, at least in the past few years. According to analyses by the German Centre for Research on Higher Education and Science Studies (DZHW) within the "Wissenschaft weltoffen" initiative on the international nature of studies and research in Germany, the number of foreign university staff has increased 53 per cent since 2006 but the number of foreign professors by just 32 per cent. While a large number of the staff working in engineering come from Asia (37 per cent), the fields of medicine and health care are dominated by Eastern Europeans. The proportion of Western Europeans is particularly high in the arts, languages and cultural studies.

According to the data compiled by the DZHW and a survey conducted by the Stifterverband, German postgraduates and post-docs are primarily drawn to the USA, Great Britain and Switzerland. Other regions of the world such as Central and South America tend to play only a minor role. Notable here is that more than twelve times as many Asian researchers supported by German funding institutions live and work in Germany than German scientists in Asian countries. A similar picture emerged for Eastern Europe.

A qualitative shift in mobility behaviour

Latest since the 1990s, academic stays abroad are no longer merely reserved to a small elite. In 2011, funding organisations made it possible for more than 7,000 German scientists to spend at least four weeks abroad. A non-quantifiable number of stays abroad were also financed through projects funded by third parties or other financial sources (including foreign ones). Buzzwords such as "brain circulation" and "multiple mobility" in academia are also suggestive of a qualitative shift in mobility behaviour. In academia, this generally goes beyond one-off research and study stays abroad. Nevertheless, does the growing mobility of researchers in their day-to-day academic work really also encourage migration and thus a brain drain in the end? It is virtually impossible to conclusively determine whether a substantial drain of human capital actually exists alone based on the migration balance. Given that the question of a return remains open for many stays abroad and that they are often part of an "extended qualification phase" beyond the doctorate, the transition between brain drain in the sense of continuous migration and temporary international mobility is seamless.

The motives behind the migration

Unsatisfactory research conditions are often just one reason for accepting a research position abroad though. A 2002 survey of academics conducted by the Stifterverband revealed that the motives are far more complex. Besides perceived shortcomings in the working conditions in the home country, above all the appeal of individual research institutions proved decisive in the decision to research abroad. Both German academics working abroad and international academics working in Germany (regardless of their professional orientation) named the appeal of the new guest institution coupled with the opportunity to pursue their own research interests as the most important motives for the move abroad.

Significant was also that German scientists named better career opportunities or a lack of career prospects twice as often than enhanced earning potential as the reason for opting to work abroad. A more recent survey conducted by the Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance (iFQ) on research conditions in Germany and abroad indicated that little has changed in this so far overall. However, the excellence initiative has proven a ray of hope, and suggests that by improving the framework conditions, some of the academics who have left the country can be encouraged to return, and that the German research institutions have become more appealing to foreign researchers. In 2008, academics recruited abroad occupied already a quarter of positions at graduate schools and almost as many in the excellence clusters. Among these, immigrants and returning emigrants from the USA formed the largest group (42 per cent), followed by those from India, Italy, France and China.

The return to Germany and the brain gain

Despite this, the studies by both the Stifterverband and the iFQ show that only around one in ten of the German academics working in North America already made the decision to return to Germany. For the remaining 90 per cent, a return only comes into question if a concrete offer of employment exists, or the work environment or research conditions are attractive. Besides their own professional prospects, those of their partner definitely also play a significant role in the decision to return to the home country.

While some countries strive to bind their scientists, who gain qualification and conduct research abroad, with sanctions and return obligations, Germany instead remains committed to actively approaching German scientists working abroad. Thus the German Academic International Network (GAIN) has been advising potential returning academics on funding opportunities since 2003 and has brought researchers together with universities, research institutions and companies at its annual conference in Germany. According to a study of graduates conducted by the Umfragezentrum Bonn (uzbonn), almost two thirds of those to participate in the conference between 2004 and 2008 have since returned to Germany. The study also indicates that German researchers occupy an above average number of junior positions in North America, and that some manage to advance their career upon their return with an appropriate position as a junior research group leader, or a W2 or W3 professor.

Retaining a balance

Overall, it must be noted that internationalisation is meanwhile an established hallmark of quality at universities and research institutions, international mobility already forms part of the "biographical normality" for many scientists, and there has - to date - been little reason to fear a brain drain in Germany. Despite this, the approach to mobility remains an academic policy challenge.

In the area of tension between national anchoring and international knowledge production, academic policy actors are increasingly being confronted with the task of creating incentives and framework conditions to retain the scientists working in the country, attract foreign scientists, and win back those who have already left.

Within this, a glance at the motives of academics who have emigrated suggests that it could well be worth placing greater emphasis on improving the career prospects within German academia so as to also retain the balance in "brain circulation" in the long term.

About the author
Antje Wegner is a research assistant at the Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance (iFQ) in Berlin in the fields of young talent and careers.

From Forschung & Lehre :: December 2013

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