In a world in which research is carried out on a truly global basis, international interaction is important to scientific success. The UK is a world leader in science, and researchers move (see Box 1) and collaborate (see Box 2) to pursue scientific excellence; collaboration and mobility are a key part of the business of science, and they are distinct and complementary.
Mobility ensures a circulation of skills and ideas around the world, and ‘brain circulation’ in the global research system sees scientists follow the best science and the best resources. Recent decades have seen significant increases in global competition between countries to attract skilled migrants.
Scientists have a long history of working together, but the level of international collaboration is increasing. When UK-based researchers publish internationally-collaborative papers, they are more highly cited, a measure of scientific impact, than papers published by only UK-based authors. This gap has widened over time.
It is important to understand the role that the EU plays in the UK research landscape to give an insight into how a changing relationship with the EU might affect this. This report considers the extent and value of collaboration and mobility in UK science, and the role that the EU plays in supporting this. It focuses predominantly on collaboration and mobility of UK-based academic researchers.
Although collaboration and mobility are also important to researchers in industry and students, specific mechanisms to support their collaboration and mobility are not covered in this report. However, they and their work may be counted in some of the analyses.
Box 1: Why are researchers internationally mobile?
Show further information
To collaborate internationally
Mobility allows researchers to share specialist expertise, skills or equipment and expand their collaboration networks. Collaborations can happen remotely, but often mobility is required to facilitate productive collaboration. Collaborations can also be an outcome of periods spent in other countries for work.
To develop their careers
Working with different researchers and joining up with the best research groups, wherever they are found, can help scientists to develop their experience. Internationally mobile researchers produce more papers on average than those who have only ever worked in the UK.
To build international networks
Mobility helps to build the networks through which science progresses. The Society’s 2011 report Knowledge, Networks and Nations provides detail of the international nature of science, and the ways in which mobility builds networks.
To build the UK’s soft power
The scientific community often works beyond national boundaries on problems of common interest, so is well placed to support diplomatic efforts that require nontraditional alliances of nations, sectors and non-governmental organisations. This is known as science diplomacy.
Box 2: Why do UK researchers collaborate internationally?
Show further information
To work with the best
To progress their science, researchers seek to work with the most outstanding experts in their field, or indeed other fields, many of whom will not be based in the UK. Collaborations allow scientists to access skills and knowledge that complement their own, stimulating new ideas and developing expertise.
To gain access to state-of-the-art equipment
Cutting edge scientific equipment is expensive; it may be first available only in one country, or it may be affordable only if a number of countries combine together to pay for it. Scientists often gain access to this equipment for their research through collaboration.
To pool resources and reap benefits of scale
Global scientific achievements demonstrate the value of collaboration on big projects. The human genome was sequenced in just 13 years through the Human Genome Project. The Higgs Boson was discovered in 2012 using experiments built by large international collaborations at the international accelerator centre CERN, and exploiting computing power provided by a collaboration of 170 centres spread across 42 countries.
To tackle global challenges
International collaborations can enable the research base to tackle global challenges and act quickly in emergencies, such as when there was an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2013. Charities, government and industry worked together globally to respond to the crisis.