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Pushing and pulling – the forces of researcher mobility in Europe

08 July 2004 - Over 700 representatives from the world of research, industry and politics - from across Europe and beyond - met in Paris on the 29 and 30 June to discuss the challenges of researcher mobility in the European Research Area.

The international hub of Paris student life – the Cité Internationale Universitaire – was a perfect setting for the kick-off to the two-day event which aimed to identify the challenges involved in attracting and keeping researchers in Europe, whilst promoting international mobility.

“When Europe is capable of attracting top researchers from across the world, we can consider the European Research Area a success,” announced Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin at the launch of the event.

Candid camera
The highlight of the first evening was a live broadcast by the Franco-German TV channel, Arté. The documentary “Dans les couloirs de la recherche” gave an honest portrayal of the daily trials and tribulations of a group of international researchers working in a French biomedical laboratory and showed how international mobility is an inherent part of their profession.

The audience also heard how the new European Network of Mobility Centres (ERA-MORE), officially launched by Commissioner Busquin during the event, will provide researchers and their families with some 200 ‘one-stop’ information points to help ease the transition between European and partner countries. “We want researchers coming to Paris to be considered as guests, not just as scientists travelling through,” commented Michel Gentot, President of the Cité Internationale Universitaire, one of the key French mobility centres contributing to ERA-MORE.

Drain, gain or circulation?
The international event continued on 30 June with a conference entitled ‘Brain Drain, Brain Gain: New Challenges’, at another symbolic venue in Paris – the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, one of Europe’s top science museums, and co-organisers of the occasion, in partnership with the European Commission, the British Council and the Italian and German embassies.

To set the scene, Yves Hersant from the Ecole des Haute Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris gave an elegant historical perspective on the mobility of researchers. In Renaissance Europe, researchers – studiosi – travelled widely and considered mobility as the only path to self-accomplishment. On the contrary, explained Hersant, for the studiosi a ‘brain drain’ would have been to stay in one place, in a closed world.

However, the pressures of the present day economic context provided the strongest underlying current for the rest of the day’s discussions. Participants were reminded of the commitments made in Barcelona by EU heads of state to devote 3% of EU gross domestic product to research by 2010, implying that some 700 000 new researchers must be recruited in Europe by this date.

Commissioner Busquin underlined the importance of human resources in reaching this objective and announced a new EU ‘Researchers in Europe’ initiative for 2005. “I have proposed that mobility should be one of the priorities in the context of the new financial perspective for Europe but also at the centre of a vast awareness-raising campaign aimed at the general public on researchers in Europe, which will be launched by the European Commission next year,” he said.

Contacts and culture
A number of speakers referred to their own personal experiences of mobility. Thibaut Roulon, a French molecular biologist, is one of many young European researchers to have taken up a position in the USA after doctoral studies in Europe. He talked of the benefits of mobility: “You find yourself confronted with people who think and act differently. You arrive with your own culture and your ideas and by confronting these you can create real added value, whether financial, scientific or human,” he explained.

Roulon stressed the importance of networking in mobility – he works for a biotech company in California set up by other French researchers – but decried the lack of systematic contact between Europe and its expatriated researchers. These can be points of attachment, he said, and a way of helping people to circulate, but he stressed that lack of investment in research in Europe – and the consequent lack of jobs – was a key factor in keeping researchers like himself from returning ‘home’.

Addressing the conference, François d’Aubert, French Minister for Research, agreed that mobility needed to be handled more systematically: “No management [of mobility], little return: the ingredients are there for a long-term weakening of our competitiveness,” he said.
The minister added that he was in favour of a doctoral or postdoctoral experience abroad being made an obligatory step in researcher training.

Push and pull
A second round table dedicated to initiatives in place to promote the attractiveness of research gave the audience a chance to hear how the UK, France, Germany, and the Nordic countries, as well as the European Commission, have put programmes in place to attract top foreign researchers and students. However, Lloyd Anderson, Director of Science, Engineering and the Environment at the British Council, stressed the importance of symmetrical co-operation. “A one-way flow of experts is both unsustainable and unethical,” he insisted.

David Schindel, Head of the European Office of the US National Science Foundation, admitted that US researchers were very mobile within, but not outside, the US. In the American system, he said, professors push their students always to look for the best place to do research and pull in from around the world the best colleagues who will enrich their local environment.

Fresh air
Raffaele Liberali, Director of the Human Factor, Mobility and Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission, highlighted one of the biggest differences between the European and US systems. “Our researchers get their independence too late,” he said, describing the “strong hierarchy which blocks and pushes our young researchers to go abroad to get a breath of fresh air”. Many of the younger researchers present vehemently agreed. “People need to be taken seriously at an early stage,” commented Dagmar Meyer, Chair of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association.

Liberali, along with other speakers, also pleaded for a greater social visibility of science. “Show society what you are doing and why you are doing it. Otherwise you won’t have society’s support and you won’t have a budget,” he said.

Mixing permanence with risk-taking
The final round table explored ways in which other forms of mobility – between disciplines, between basic and clinical research, and between academic research and industry, can increase the attractiveness of research careers.

Christian Bréchot, Director-General of Inserm, the French biomedical research agency, explained how his agency was developing a mechanism whereby researchers could have a permanent position and, in addition, the possibility to have a temporary contract to interface with universities, hospitals, industry, or international organisations, for example.

A European research career model, said Bréchot, should combine notions of permanence with those of flexibility and attractiveness, and keep intact the capacity for risk-taking.

Closing the conference, Alexandre Quintanilha, from the University of Porto, said the day had been rich in success stories but that much more remained to be done. “We need to move much faster and more aggressively. The examples of success need to be imitated and developed in different countries.” Nevertheless, there were some reasons for optimism, he concluded: “We are doing things in Europe that will not only attract and keep, but also give a voice to the researchers who are helping to build a Europe of knowledge.”

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last update: 08-07-2004