Ideas on the move
Human resources are being given an ever larger place in Europe's science policy. The budget proposed for the training and mobility of researchers in the next Framework Programme is twice that in the current one. It is also proposed to knock down some of the walls dividing European Union research from the rest of the world. Euroabstracts asked Jocelyne Gaudin(1), who heads the Research DG's mobility unit, why human resources are getting so much attention.
The European Union set aside 850 million - nearly 6% of the entire Fifth Framework Programme budget - on encouraging researchers to work in transnational teams. How will the coming of the European Research Area (ERA) affect this?
Mobility is a key objective of the European Research Area, but it is not an objective in itself. Rather, it is a means of achieving excellence in research, for two main reasons:
How does mobility help to create excellence in research?
Researchers have a tradition of moving about, which stems from the simple need to exchange ideas in order to add to knowledge. For reasons of infrastructure, funding and the accumulation of knowledge, work is done in teams, and people circulate widely between those teams. If we are to get the best out of research, we need to assemble the best teams.
And the teams are global, not just European. In today's world, world-class ideas are the fruit of world-wide collaboration. We would not wish to discourage European researchers from joining teams based elsewhere. But it is important to have a policy to help them to come back again. The issue of returning researchers is very important.
So how can Europe make sure it has enough researchers?
The risk of a shortage of human resources in research is partly connected to the aging of the population, and partly to the quality of basic education provision. But it is also a function of the status scientists are granted in our society: for instance in industry, marketing managers are often better paid than researchers. These social factors are one reason why the ERA has decided to do a lot to promote the idea of science within society, and to raise the public awareness of science. It is an integrated strategy.
What has been done in practice to free up researcher mobility?
The Lisbon 'dot.com' summit in March last year invited the Commission and the Member States to work together to reduce blockages to mobility. Then in June 2000 the Research Council went a step further and set up a high level group (HLG) made up of experts from the Member States. Its job was to look into the current obstacles to mobility and make proposals for their removal.
The group worked very well. It was remarkable how willing participants were to put issues on the table - it shows that they see the benefit of mobility. Although the group was only set up last summer and first met last October, its report is nearly out only six months later. It paves the way for a communication the Commission will be issuing by the summer.
It brought out the fact that although a lot of work is being done on mobility in education and employment ministries, it was often a new topic for the research ministries. So the existence of the HLG built a lot of interministerial bridges, which is very positive.
What many people have not taken into account in their thinking on mobility is the specific problems of researchers. Unlike areas such as education, where you undertake mobility for a short period at a particular point in your career, researchers are expected to be mobile throughout their professional lives. Just as we talk about lifelong learning, we should also be talking about lifelong mobility.
In most professions mobility usually happens at the beginning of one's career, but in research it is very often in the middle. Moreover it is not a short visit, nor a permanent migration, but usually a stay of three to five years, the duration of a major research project. This style of medium-term mid-career mobility combines a lot of problems: the problems of family life, children's education, social security, pension schemes and many others.
The range of obstacles to mobility that the HLG identified show up the discrepancy between theory and practice. The free movement of persons in the EU exists in theory - but when you are a researcher who wants to join a team in another country, it is not so easy. A lot of people are still discouraged from being mobile.
Granted that if it is to compete in the knowledge-driven economy, Europe needs to keep and attract researchers. But how can it do this?
What came out of the HLG's discussions is that the most important factor is the quality of the facilities at a researcher's disposal: a good team with good infrastructure will attract researchers even if it is in an isolated location. Even so, for researchers in mid-career the quality of life for spouses and children is an important factor too.
Is there a gender dimension to this?
It is sometimes held that mobility should be a compulsory part of a career in research. But that immediately introduces a gender discrimination. Women are more likely to have family responsibilities, and they already face disadvantage in their research careers. Making mobility compulsory would increase this disadvantage. So ways have to be found to make mobility easier for women.
Is the nature of mobility changing; is the Internet enabling people to work in virtual teams, without needing to relocate physically?
There is no evidence for this. Electronic networking works very well for exchanging information, and electronic conferences are held. But for working together in a sustained way it is not so practical. It is very different to try to work in a team at a distance.
Is there a downside to increased mobility?
What makes mobility such an interesting but also more complex issue is that it is very interlinked with other problems. And mobility has two faces. We need to attract researchers to join teams that can really achieve results - but at the same time we do not want to create an artificial brain drain.
Despite the problems, are researchers in fact becoming more mobile?
Anecdotally, the answer is yes. But as in so many fields, the data is lacking to give a precise answer. There is a study under way to assess the trends in mobility, and whether or not Europe is suffering from a brain drain, but it is not yet finished. One problem is that it is difficult to identify researchers in the statistics. Some of them are counted as workers, some as civil servants and others as students.
Patents versus publications
Is mobility only a geographical concept?
No. The issue of intersectoral mobility also needs to be tackled very urgently in Europe. Again our data are incomplete, but we suspect that there are a lot of difficulties in the way of researchers who wish to transfer between academia, government and private companies. For instance university researchers may face delays in patenting and exploiting their discoveries. The possibility to move not just across the continent but between sectors may be a reason people are attracted to move to the United States.
What are the barriers between the sectors?
One problem is that results are evaluated on different scales. In academia, what brings respect is the number of publications and citations, which means you make your results available as soon as possible. But in the private sector it is patents that safeguard future revenue, which means keeping your results secret until you have them registered. These are totally contradictory. The academic world is picking up very slowly the idea of patenting the applications of their discoveries.
Social security and pension schemes are also different, and in some countries there is the issue of the status of civil servants, who lose their pension entitlements if they stay too long outside the scheme. Another obstacle in some countries is that academic researchers who want to leave teaching for a while have to find their own replacement.
What is the next step?
We are in the privileged position that the Commission is proposing to approximately double the mobility budget in the next framework programme. So we are at present working out the shape of the global strategy for mobility, so that we can propose the right instruments to implement it.
(1) Jocelyne Gaudin was educated in Paris and obtained a degree in economics at the University of Paris Dauphine. After working in a consultancy group and at the Travail et Société (Work and Society) research centre, she joined the European Commission in 1985.