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The Black Hole

Funding agencies risk driving away international scholars


Scientific research extends well beyond borders and its internationalization has been a major boon for collaboration and advancement. Last month, Switzerland made news by putting a cap on immigrant labour that would prevent mobility into their scientific research environment. This met with much criticism and resulted in the EU banning Swiss applications to its Horizon 2020 grant applications (a good account of the situation appeared in the Huffington Post earlier this week).

Movement amongst academic circles is a good thing – there is no doubt about that. Ideas, techniques, approaches and networks all need to be shared in order to facilitate the quick transfer of new research findings. The hard cap by Switzerland represents an extreme version of policy in the opposite direction, but it did stimulate me to ask the question: “Why should movement be associated with every stage of academic career?”

In this post, I suggest that we have gone too far in encouraging trainee relocation; individual national funding agencies risk losing international talent through an unjustified “need to move.” I do not doubt that staying at the same institution for many years can stifle the breadth of thinking and streamline approaches to solving questions (in a negative way), but hard rules about transplanting talent do not seem a prudent course of action. Many examples exist at the fellowship level (e.g., the prestigious Marie Curie Fellowships) which restrict applicants to those who wish to move countries.

Secondly, many schools (including Canadian schools) seem to employ a similar approach rather heavy handedly when it comes to hiring and they are often accused of not hiring their own graduates in what is viewed as an effort to validate themselves as an “academic destination.”

The cohort of researchers that are being ignored in such policies, however, are those that have already moved (sometimes multiple times) and major questions emerge: How many moves are sufficient? How much research is wasted by moving frequently?

Moving costs are not trivial

Yes, it costs money to move, but more importantly, it costs time. It is frustrating to watch established young investigators get evicted from their first academic posting despite excellent publications (a common practice at bigger institutions). It forces another portion of unproductive research time on these young scholars and amounts to a waste of major public funds.

A second source of incredible monetary wastage is that spent on recruiting people who have no intention of coming to another institution – I’ve been given the advice from several senior faculty to “get a job offer anywhere else” and then schools will finally pay attention to your application. This parlaying of offers and the subsequent politicking take up the valuable energies and efforts of young scholars in the prime of their careers – when they should be generating new ideas and research.

Researchers are people 

One thing that is often forgotten is that early career academics are in the middle of their lives – postdoctoral fellows often leave the country in which they’ve completed their PhD to acquire new training in a new environment. In the life sciences this often means a 3-6 year tenure in a different country in their late 20s to early 30s. Uprooting at this point is not ideal, especially if these scholars are married and have children or houses. Any decision to leave will be weighed carefully against a decision to simply “move home.” This is further compounded by the fact that most positions these days have no promise of permanence and may even result in yet another move five years after beginning one’s group.

As an international researcher, one gets encouraged by funding agencies to uproot from the place you’ve traveled to (very far away from home sometimes!) in order move to another institution within the same country (e.g., UK funders would much prefer me to move to Oxford, Manchester or London than stay in Cambridge). These types of rules at funding agencies actively discourage international scholars from remaining in the foreign country and do not recognize the fact that they have moved several times in the past and derived many of the benefits of moving already.

While I’ve picked out international scholars, the same logic applies to many other cohorts of people who would ideally stay in the same city for the next stage of career (e.g., parents or people who have “unmovable partners”). It is short-sighted policy making to discourage great scholars based on such circumstances and funding agencies should be hiring the best people, not simply those that fit the mobility mould.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. BP / March 27, 2014 at 01:15

    This is an excellent post Dave. To add to your last point, I have often noticed that even outside of academia, those who have moved are more sought after than those who were tied down to one city. Sometimes, having training from a foreign institute on your CV gets mistaken for better skills and/or leadership potential. In industry, if you get in the door, you may have the chance to prove your potential but in academia you are prescreened prior to getting a position.

  2. Steve Maltby / March 31, 2014 at 01:51

    Thanks for the post Dave. Couldn’t agree with you more, based on our experiences on a CIHR-funded international post-doctoral fellowship in Australia.

    As you say, the emphasis and message from the Canadian funding agencies is to go forth, spread internationally and develop new skillsets/collaborations/ideas. It remains unclear to me what the next step is supposed to be after one has done that.

    I can say that this process has been very difficult, frustrating and generally slow. Social/family life, finances and research have all been impacted, and I have yet to decide whether I feel the positives outweigh the negatives.

    We have been especially startled by the difficulty (and paperwork) required for living in, and being allowed to work, in another country. We are required to file taxes in both countries (at two different times of year, due to different tax-years) and negotiations over how to manage funding and salary conditions have often taken months. The maze of VISA conditions and paperwork have also been staggering.

    On the work side, it’s amazing how long it takes to reestablish a research program and get back up to the speed you were operating at in your former institution. At the same time, you see researchers who have remained local continuing at full-stride on their previous work.

    Within Australia (or at least Newcastle), there doesn’t seem to be as many of the barriers blocking internal promotions on careers, so we find ourselves falling behind local talent for career progression locally, while being half-way around the world from the career opportunities back in Canada.

    I don’t have any answers, but I certainly appreciate you raising the issue for discussion and hope we get some shifts in the system over the future.