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Researcher mobility: driving scientific success

With just over six months to go until the UK leaves the EU, the future of science and innovation in the UK is shrouded in uncertainty. As the leading independent funder of heart and circulatory research in the UK, the British Heart Foundation has talked a lot about the possible implications of Brexit for research funding, regulation of medicines and the people who lead and contribute to scientific research in the UK, one of which is the issue of international mobility.

Science is a global endeavour, and researchers travel in order to share ideas, gain new perspectives and solve problems collaboratively. While we know that the UK Government has committed to ending the free movement of people between the UK and the European Economic Area (EEA), we are yet to find out what a new immigration system will look like. As we await the Government’s Immigration Bill, the BHF has surveyed our researchers and alumni to find out where, how and why they travel for work.

Our survey received a fantastic response — mobility is clearly a topic that our researchers feel very passionate about. From student to Professor, our scientists were eager to share their views, and we have an excellent and detailed picture of what migration and mobility mean to those on the ground.

What did we find out?

First, that our research workforce is truly international. 53% of respondents were from the UK, 10% had dual nationality, 32% were from other EEA countries, and 5% from the rest of the world. This broadly reflects the UK research community more generally, and shows just how much global talent contributes to science and innovation here.

Second, we found that researchers travel in lots of different ways. 57% of our researchers travel abroad for work at least twice a year. The majority of trips are short, with just over three quarters being for a week or less (76%), but they can add up; almost a fifth (17%) of respondents had accrued between one and three months’ worth of travel in the last year. We also found that 62% of those surveyed have worked or studied in at least one country outside the UK, including the US, Germany, Italy, Australia, France and The Netherlands, to name but a few. This information helps us to understand how international science is. Researchers migrate both in the short and long-term, moving all over the world, but why?

Global science pushes boundaries

By far the most cited reason was attending conferences (84%), followed by meetings with collaborators (65%) and training (26%). These touch-points are important for individual scientists’ careers, but what is really striking is their benefit to scientific endeavour as a whole. As one survey respondent put it, collaboration and an international outlook “push forward the boundaries of science.” Mobility means progress.

Our survey also shed light on the factors that are important to scientists when deciding where to take up a research post. Most important was the reputation of the research group that they are joining, with the ability of their family or dependants to move with them a very close second. Third and fourth were the scientific reputations of the institution and the country that they are moving to. Respondents also highlighted that social culture and quality of life are important to them, reminding us that life outside the lab is important too.

What would we like to see?

As the UK develops its new immigration policy, researcher mobility must be at the forefront of the discussion, so that we can continue to attract the best international talent at all career stages. The new system will have to enable researchers, and indeed, all skilled workers, to travel globally while minimising bureaucracy and cost, allow them to bring their families when they relocate here, and make sure that they and their families can access the support they need. But the conversation must also turn to the future of science in the UK. Our researchers have told us that they relocate in order to undertake excellent research, so we must do our utmost to protect and enhance our research and innovation capacities post-Brexit. The Government has committed to investing 2.4% of GDP into science and innovation by 2027, growing to 3% in the longer-term. This excellent ambition must be matched by a clear plan, adequate oversight, and the ability to turn that investment into output that will benefit the UK as a whole.

The BHF’s research into heart and circulatory diseases is driven by the incredible minds that we fund. Post Brexit, the UK must be able to attract, retain and support the people that are so integral to our mission to beat heartbreak forever.


Researcher mobility: driving scientific success was originally published in British Heart Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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