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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - August 2003   
 'Let’s be proud of our researchers'
 Research: a vocation
 Choosing a mentor
 Drawn to the USA
 Everyday life in Japan
 Balancing the gender equation
 A boost for science
 University challenge
 Migrating to the private sphere
 The incorruptible Marie
 National associations of students, PhDs and researchers

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Title  Momentum to move

Mobility strengthens the links between laboratories, helps centres of excellence to form and enables researchers to carry out research they may not be able to do at home, exposing them to other cultures and approaches. But mobility has its downside too – when researchers are forced to chase after funding from institution to institution. Nevertheless, who can deny the benefits of human resource mobility? This is why it is at the heart of the Union's new research policy.  

Graphic element
Young people are travelling more and doing so earlier in their lives. But they are not taking to the road for pleasure alone. According to the Strata Etan(1) report, there were 1.4 million expatriate students worldwide in 1992, equally split between the human sciences and the exact sciences. Studying abroad is set to rise as a trend, attracting an estimated 3 million students in 2010 and 5 million in 2025.

More than three-quarters of expatriate students study in five countries: the United States (34%), the United Kingdom (15%), Germany (13%), France (11%) and Australia (8%). Exchanges between North America and Europe are quite substantian, although the traffic is busier in one direction than the other: 49 000 Europeans cross the Atlantic to study every year compared with 28 000 North Americans making the trip to Europe (for intra-European figures, see the box Quantifying European mobility). 

One thing leads to another
This initial relocation for university studies often leads to other things. Claire Foullon, who studied earth sciences at the Université de Paris XI, did her master's at Edinburgh University through the EU’s Socrates programme. 'As I wanted to continue to study and work in English, which is vital for international research, I took part in a summer project at Glasgow University before beginning my doctorate at St Andrews University.' But Foullon is French and the UK only funds registration fees for foreign students. This prompted her to contact the British Council, the Rotary Club and the Association of Women University Graduates – all to no avail. 'I even tried to start a thesis elsewhere, but in vain because my profile did not match their criteria.' But her perseverance paid off in the end. As the first post-graduate student to be assisted by the EU’s Plato exchange network, she is now completing her doctorate at the KULeuven in Belgium – and in English. 'It is thanks to European mobility networks that I was able to complete my thesis.'

Practical matters
Although financing is no doubt the primary problem, every expatriate researcher will also be familiar with the many other practical problems and administrative hassles of settling abroad. An employment contract requires a residence permit which is itself often linked to having an employment contract. Getting visas for family members is quite a struggle too. Information received in the home country is one thing and what you are told in the host country is often something else again. There are endless requests for documents and the cogs of the administrative machine turn frustratingly slowly.

There are also the financial considerations of where to pay taxes, how to benefit from social security and how to guarantee pension rights. Social security contributions are often paid in the host country for future benefits one never sees.

On the personal front, it is clearly much simpler if an expatriate researcher is single. Many spouses of doctoral or post-doctoral researchers have difficulties finding a job or even a crèche to free up enough time to look for one. These practical difficulties can lead to partners being forced to live apart, if the researcher’s spouse decides to stay behind.

Then there is the language question. One can get by everywhere with English of course, and one of the reasons the United Kingdom attracts so many foreign researchers is because it offers them total language immersion. It takes time, nevertheless, to acquire a perfect command of another language, and that can pose problems. 'In a foreign language, it is difficult to possess all the subtleties of vocabulary enabling me to express my precise thoughts, and thus to be totally understood as I would like,' explains Tony Remans, a Dutch-speaking Belgian biologist working for a doctorate at the INRA (FR). 

Opening up new horizons
For students who decide to embark on studies abroad, these difficulties are often of secondary importance. Joining a new research team, the immersion in another culture and the exposure to alternative scientific approaches opens up new and invigorating horizons for those who travel abroad. 'Mobility has its good and bad points, but the advantages certainly outweigh the disadvantages,' believes Pál Venetianer, a professor at the Biological Research Centre in Szeged (HU). 'It is beneficial for the institutions and above all for a country's research performance. For the individuals, that depends. Mobility strengthens the personal development of many of them – probably the best of them.'

If there is general agreement that mobility is on balance beneficial, that leaves the question of where to go. Some do not consider it necessary to cross the border. 'I believe that post-doctoral training is very beneficial, but I believe it is important to change laboratory and subject, but not necessarily country,' is the view of one French biologist who participated in the CNRS(2) survey.

Humane mobility
Does moving to a new country trigger a fear of the unknown? Not necessarily, but too many changes can be a real problem. 'The uncertainties about the future which mobility can bring and the difficulty of integrating into different environments can be a psychological handicap which causes some to abandon scientific research,' continues Venetianer. Other – particularly senior – scientists also have their reservations.    Patrick Echegut, a researcher at the Centre de Recherche sur les Matériaux à Haute Température in Orléans (FR), advocates a 'humane mobility which does not treat individuals as merchandise, and which is beneficial to the researcher and the host laboratory.' He also distinguishes between a form of forced mobility – 'a body of nomadic researchers without status and forced to do their master's bidding' – and a 'desired mobility, which subsequently permits integration into more stable situations, and which should not last too long but be seen as the search for new experience.' 

'Mobility for mobility's sake' certainly has its drawbacks. An endless series of post-doctorates, dictated by circumstances (grant, country, laboratory), is not always the answer and there are many who dream of one day being able to settle down. 'Mobility grants are generally rewarding but they can be an obstacle to permanent research posts,' believes Michèle Gué, a lecturer and researcher at the Université de Montpellier II (FR). 'Young people apply for grant after grant as they move from post to post and extend their CV. The danger is also that these researchers, who are at the start of their career, may become intellectually as well as geographically mobile. This could lead to them jumping from grant to grant and not having the time to devote themselves to their chosen research subject. What is more, these young people are often asked to do the work of super technicians and make too little use of their project management and development skills.' 

A return ticket please
Finally, the lack of research posts in the country of origin often makes it extremely difficult for researchers to return home. This results in a brain drain which Europe desperately wants to plug in the interest of its scientific competitiveness. 'Mobility is fundamental at the outset of a research career. I regret not having moved a little more, but I decided to stay in Italy. In my country, you find it much more difficult to find an opening when you return from abroad,' explains Fabio Monforti-Ferrario, a researcher at the Italian agency for new technologies, energy and the environment, ENEA in Bologna. Gué thinks that: 'Mobility must be a choice and not a one-way ticket'.

Faced with the shortage of posts at universities and public research centres, many opt for the private sector. Enrico Piazza, a doctor of physics, chose this route and is very pleased he did. He also maintains that a doctorate is an excellent professional qualification with which to obtain a rewarding position in a company.   He believes that 'post-doctorates simply enable universities to recruit highly skilled staff cheaply without incurring the costs associated with full-time jobs.' 

'There are more permanent posts in the private sector,' explains Remans, 'but many researchers prefer to continue to switch from one post-doctorate to another, which often amounts to just ploughing on blindly with no goal in sight. They see the private sector as being much harder and more commercial, and few of them acquire the ability to enter it. I am not speaking about scientific abilities but the ability to go out and land a job.' 

However one looks at it, compared with the United States and Japan, the lack of crossover between the public and private sectors is the Achilles' heel of the European Research Area (see box The Commission's point of view) .

(1) Strata-Etan expert working group, Human resources in RTD, Final report, 21.08.02 – downloadable document:

(2) Erwan Seznec, Dominique Martin-Rovet and Stéphane Roy, Du brain drain au back drain, Le long chemin des biologistes français présents aux Etats-Unis, CNRS, May 2002

Printable version

  Quantifying European mobility

Nearly 7% of higher education students in the Member States come from foreign countries. Most of the traffic (2.4%) is in the form of inter-Union mobility. Of the remaining 4.6%, 1.7% come from Asia and Oceania, 1% from ...
  European citizen

Why not make life easier for those whose profession takes them to other countries? INRA’s Tony Remans proposes Union 'citizenship'. 

Tony Remans, 27, a Belgian biotechnology researcher and father of a young son, ...
  The willing nomad

With a German mother and an Italian father, Guido Germano, doctor of chemistry, studied and worked in  Germany, the USA and the United Kingdom before returning to Italy.

'You are welcomed abroad if you are on a student ...

  Quantifying European mobility

Nearly 7% of higher education students in the Member States come from foreign countries. Most of the traffic (2.4%) is in the form of inter-Union mobility. Of the remaining 4.6%, 1.7% come from Asia and Oceania, 1% from Africa, 1% from non-EU European countries and fewer than 1% from the United States. The United Kingdom has the highest intake of foreign students (15%), followed by its small neighbour, Belgium (11%), which has a particularly large proportion of African students, mainly from Morocco.

More Greeks (52 825) than nationals from any other Member State travel within the EU to study. They are followed by the French (35 363) and the Germans (34 621). There are also some favoured destinations: the Chinese have a predilection for Finland, the Greeks for England, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina for Denmark, the Turks for Germany, and the Americans for Ireland. 

Logically enough, former colonial powers welcome students from their former colonies: Algerians and Moroccans in France, Surinamese in the Netherlands, Congolese in Belgium, and so on.

The 'hard' sciences and technologies attract a large number of foreigners. In 1999, they represented 32% of the total in these branches in the United Kingdom, or more than twice as many as for all the other specialities combined. In France, they account for 5% of master's students and 29% of doctoral students, including a large proportion of North Africans. 

  European citizen

Tony Remans
Tony Remans
Why not make life easier for those whose profession takes them to other countries? INRA’s Tony Remans proposes Union 'citizenship'. 

Tony Remans, 27, a Belgian biotechnology researcher and father of a young son, has been engaged in post-doctoral research at INRA (FR) since February thanks to a European grant. He has also been awarded a doctorate in Australia and attended workshops in Spain and England. 'I have met many researchers of different nationalities. Most of them have the same fears and problems,' he stresses. These relate to the complicated matter of finding a stable job and the often Kafkaesque administrative difficulties (social security, residence permit, pension, etc.) facing all those who decide to move in a Europe. 

Remans believes the solution lies in creating a European citizenship, granted according to precise criteria, for those who work in other EU countries. 'If we really want a united Europe, that should be feasible. These citizens would have a European passport and would be able to live in any Union country with their family and without having to obtain residence permits for themselves and accompanying persons. They would pay tax to the Union and not to the country of residence (the latter subsequently receiving compensation from the EU). Social security institutions set up by the Union would deduct contributions from their wages. This system would enable them to benefit from European health cover and family allowances valid in all the Member States.'  

'This solution would contribute significantly contribution to advancing the European ideal. There is more to a Union than a single currency and the removal of customs barriers. International co-operation and interaction also means citizens being able to live and work without difficulty in any one of the Member States.'  

'That said, the Union's actions enabling young scientists to make the most of their initial experiences of life and study abroad are important and I am very pleased to benefit from them, to be able to live in France and work at the INRA. Mobility helps to structure the European Research Area. I believe that it achieves important interactions between researchers and institutions.' 

  The willing nomad

Guido Germano
Guido Germano
With a German mother and an Italian father, Guido Germano, doctor of chemistry, studied and worked in  Germany, the USA and the United Kingdom before returning to Italy.

'You are welcomed abroad if you are on a student exchange scheme or for a post-doctorate, but when it comes to joining the permanent staff of an institution the preference always goes to nationals,' explains Germano. He started a doctorate in Germany with a six-month grant, followed by a small Italian grant for three years. Today, Germano is the president of the ADI (Associazione Dottorandi e Dottori di Ricerca Italiani), an organisation he co-founded. 'One of our first battles was to obtain a 50% increase in the level of doctorate grants. We also wanted to convert these grants into employment contracts but unfortunately we failed to achieve this goal.'

At the age of 35, after a post-doctorate at Bristol University (UK) and another at Bielefeld University (DE), Germano (19 grants, four prizes) feels he has  sacrificed a great deal for research and sometimes feels he cannot stand it any more. 'On several occasions I have wanted to quit this profession, and I am not sure that one day I will not do so.' Moreover, the support mechanisms make freedom of research difficult. 'You have to request funding for subjects that are in fashion at the time. You then have to wait and, by the time the funds are available, you find you have found a better idea for your research.'

Competition? It all depends. As a junior professor at the Phillips-Universität Marburg (DE), Germano has not felt it at this level. 'This type of post was perhaps not in very great demand, especially as there is no prospect of a permanent appointment as a full professor, and also perhaps because fewer students are choosing to study chemistry and the other hard sciences. The best often move away from research, just after their thesis, and find stable and economically attractive employment in other areas. On the other hand, the competition is very stiff for a post as full professor.'