Working across borders fundamental to UK’s top researchers

04 May 2017

Having the freedom to move internationally and pursue collaborations in other countries is essential for good research and innovation, according to a survey of Fellows and grant recipients of the UK’s four national academies: the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society.

1,286 of the UK’s leading researchers (consisting of 762 Fellows and 524 grant recipients across the four national academies) were surveyed to find out about the importance of international collaboration and mobility. Key findings include:

  • Europe was reported to be the most likely continent in which respondents travelled (95%) and collaborated (87%)
  • 58% of respondents said that they had spent a year or more working abroad, 64% of whom had spent this time in North America
  • 95% said that they had been part of at least one international collaboration in the previous five years
  • 77% said that the level of international collaboration is higher now than it was 20 years ago

Survey participants’ motivations to pursue international collaborations included contributing expertise (73%), a desire to build or maintain links with researchers based overseas (66%) and accessing expertise (54%).

22% of those surveyed agreed that the ease of obtaining a visa influenced their choice of collaborator. The survey found few reported instances of issues where visa or immigration policies had deterred participants from international travel; this was most commonly an issue for those visiting Russia (31%), USA (24%), China (13%) and India (12%).

The Royal Society commissioned a second separate report that included a survey of 1,285 UK-based scientists across various disciplines and career stages. Key findings from the survey include:

  • 72% said they had trained or worked abroad
  • 80% of non-UK national researchers surveyed working in the UK were from the EU or North America; the most common nationalities being American, German, Italian and Spanish
  • 40% of the foreign-born researchers surveyed collaborate with researchers in their countries of origin
  • Women are less internationally mobile than men (39% of men vs 25% of women surveyed have spent more than three years working outside of the UK)

The Royal Society report also reviewed several academic studies and found evidence that the UK greatly benefits from foreign researchers by gaining access to a wider supply of a high-qualified skill-force. Researchers’ countries of origin also benefit, as many individuals return home to pursue research, bringing skills and training back with them.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society said: “The UK is a global scientific powerhouse, which makes us an attractive destination for researchers worldwide. We must work hard to keep barriers for incoming and outgoing researchers and their dependents at a minimum, so that ideas can grow across borders and benefit science as a whole.”

Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “This work shows research is a truly international endeavour. The ability to forge collaborations and to access talent across the globe is vital to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of research and innovation.”

Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Engineering has a particularly mobile workforce; this is true in both industry and academia, and across all skills levels. The ability of our researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to collaborate internationally, spend time in other countries, and welcome students and colleagues from around the world is fundamental to maintaining the UK’s strength as a world leader in engineering. “

Lord Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy said: "Excellent research, in the humanities and social sciences, as well as in medicine and engineering, depends on the ability to collaborate, develop understanding and learn from the best, wherever they may be based. UK universities are world-leaders in research, and because of this we attract outstanding international talent. Maintaining this global outlook is crucial to upholding our high-quality research base."