Scientists have never been so mobile


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. 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.