Brussels, 16 Mar 2004
A study of scientific mobility within Europe, carried out by a team from the University of Leeds, has concluded that, if left unchecked, EU policies aimed at promoting the free movement of researchers could potentially reduce the regenerative capacities of weaker regions.
The study is called MOBEX (mobility and excellence in labour markets: the question of balanced growth), and was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. Its stated objective was to study the relationship between human mobility and scientific excellence.
The research took the form of a year long empirical study looking at the flow of scientists between Italy and the UK. The report explains that the decision to focus on these two countries was taken because: 'Italy was a major 'donor' country within the EU and the UK, a key 'recipient'.' Data were collected through policy and legal analyses, e-mail questionnaires, and qualitative interviews with scientists in the UK and Italy.
The report claims that the research 'underlined the importance of science mobility to receiving regions not simply in the context of skills shortages [...] but also in fostering the kind of 'international culture' within which science thrives and knowledge is transferred.'
The team, led by Professor Louise Ackers, concluded that foreign scientists regard the UK as a desirable place to work due to its reputation for scientific excellence, as well as a perception that scientific labour markets are relatively open, transparent and meritocratic and, consequently, international. 'This is not always the case in other countries, where under-funding, patronage and protectionism can determine who gets the best jobs,' said Professor Ackers.
The flow of scientists from Italy to other parts of Europe is now a matter of concern for national policy makers. An Italian member of the University of Leeds team, Sonia Morano-Foadi, partly attributes the phenomenon to the influence of the so-called 'barone', professors who are reputedly the 'deal-makers' in the university job markets, and who often require scientists to work for up to two years without pay in order to progress.
Furthermore, the report states that: 'The lack of any clear relationship between scientific excellence and career progression results not only in the haemorrhaging of Italian scientific talent but also a failure to attract experts from abroad.'
From a UK perspective, meanwhile, the team warns that policy makers focus too much of their attention on the drain of talent to the US, without acknowledging the importance of flows into the UK from other parts of the EU. '[F]ailure to explicitly recognise this situation and indeed act upon it in the context of enlargement might place the UK at a competitive disadvantage.'
Indeed, the team has already begun work on new research which aims to assess the impact of enlargement on scientific labour markets. Initial findings suggest that Germany and Austria are now the top choice for many of the brightest students from Central and Eastern Europe, while the UK has a tendency to 'rest on its laurels as the major magnet for top scientific brains.'
In drawing conclusions from the MOBEX study, however, Professor Ackers warns that EU policies designed to promote centres of excellence in order to foster skills development and knowledge transfer could be at odds with the goal of creating balanced growth across Europe.
'The circulation of scientific talent does not in itself constitute brain drain. The problems arise when rates of return [to the country of origin] are very low, and when the country or region fails to attract scientific talent from outside. This could reduce the ability of weaker regions to regenerate,' said Professor Ackers
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