Does mobility really increase research quality?

By | 19 april, 2015

I have been thinking about the working conditions in academia. Or rather, I am thinking about it all the time since they are seriously wrong. I read this blog post about ”Academic scattering” and it was so depressing. It is a very honest description of the problems concerning moving around the world for post doc positions and the same time trying to maintain a relationship or a family. I worry about that, and I guess I am not the only one who does…

I have started to think that the aim of policy makers to increase the mobility of researchers might be counterproductive. Today it feels like it is impossible to spend your entire career at one institution and if you want to be successful in science you have to be open to move somewhere else in the world. Sure, seeing new places and meeting new people give new perspectives and ideas, but does this really compensate for the people that leave academia due to this ”forced” mobility? What about the perspectives and ideas we lose every time someone decides to quit?

The conclusions in this paper about ”Researchers’ Mobility and its Impact on Scientific Productivity” by A. Fernandez-Zubieta et al. are very interesting. ”Our results point to a complex interaction between mobility and productivity, which only in certain circumstances might result in a positive impact of the former on the latter. Mobility is far from been always beneficial for individual researchers, instead, mobility is associated with a short-term decrease in performance due to adjustment costs, while mobility to a lower ranked department seems to result in decreased performance also in the mid-term. Further research on the specificities of mobility, for example, mobility associated with career progress, mobility to and from business, mobility to a foreign country, and the career period in which the mobility occurs, is needed to properly assess the impact of mobility on scientific performance.

This implies that the relation between mobility and quality is more complex than usually discussed during policy making. Since researchers are human beings I guess the impact of moving to a new institution is highly individual. For me, moving away from my family and friends would make me very unhappy. And unhappy scientists don’t make good research. I worry about maybe in the future having to choose between the work I love and the people I love. It is not a choice I wish to make, and I think science is going to lose that one.

Also, this policy of ”forced” mobility have a greater affect on minorities. I have some experience of belonging to a minority and coming to a new social context, and that is never easy. Every time I meet new people it eventually comes to the point where I have to explain the alcohol norm and how it makes me feel. Every time it is a lot of anxiety about how they are going to react, if they are going to understand and care or just think that I am silly and not like me anymore. But then, it is not a crime to not drink alcohol. I can hardly imagine how that must feel if you are a LGBT person. What if your research forces you to move to a place where it is criminal for you to love? A place were you are not allowed to marry or have to live in fear of violence if someone finds out who you are? I read this best practices list for physics institutions to be more welcoming by LGBT+ physicists . It mentions common practices for working with equal treatment like safe spaces and networking opportunities, but it also has a section about keeping people safe while traveling. This section do not even mention this very serious issue.

I am convinced research needs a diversity of ideas and perspectives to flourish. This comes from a diversity of people involved in science. Diversity has to be a part of research policy and we cannot have working conditions that only fit a certain type of people. Working with equal treatment is not something you do to be nice, it is working with quality enhancement.