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Would researcher mobility be affected if the UK left the EU?

7.6% of UK-affiliated researchers (including non-UK nationals) worked for more than two years in other EU countries but not outside the EU between 1996 and 2011.

EU membership supports the movement of researchers both directly and indirectly, actively supporting movement through Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and facilitating it by allowing free movement of workers. However, the global nature of research sees scientists moving to and from the UK from all over the world. 

The right to freedom of movement within the EU allows researchers who are EU nationals to work wherever they choose within the EU. However, UK-based researchers move to countries outside the EU as well as to those within, and the UK research workforce is comprised of researchers from all over the world, not just from the EU. It is not clear whether the UK’s membership of the EU helps UK institutions to attract these non-EU workers, but they do successfully access EU funding when they are here. 

Without detail, it is not possible to speculate how this mobility might be affected by changes to freedom of movement, but this section includes details of the visa regulations with which researchers have to comply to enter other countries, to illustrate how restrictions on movement operate in practice.

Visa restrictions are not the only factor in researchers’ decision to move. Other factors such as culture, and geography also play a role.

How much do UK-based researchers move within the EU?

UK-based researchers move to work within the EU, but they also move globally, and do so more than researchers from comparable countries. Looking at publications data for active researchers affiliated with a UK institution, we used institutional affiliations on research papers to see where researchers had worked between 1996 and 2011. 7.6% of UK-affiliated researchers (including non-UK nationals) had experience of working abroad for more than two years in other EU countries but not outside the EU, which is similar to the proportion of researchers in both Germany and France that had done so, at 8.7% and 7.0%, respectively.

The proportion of UK-affiliated researchers who worked in a country outside the EU for more than two years over the same period was 13.3%70, whereas the proportions of researchers from Germany and France who had done so were lower, at 9.2% and 8.1% respectively. 

Table 5 shows the proportion of researchers in European countries that spent more than two years working in a different country between 1996 and 2011. The UK is ranked sixth, but note that all the countries ranked above the UK are notably smaller—in terms of population, GDP and research spend—so it might be reasonable to assume that researchers from those countries have more incentive to move abroad to develop their careers. 

Table 5

European countries ranked by the proportion of their research population that has spent more than two years working in a different country between 1996 and 2011.

* European Member States | ** EEA countries and Switzerland

Country Long-term migration Outside EU migration Within EU migration
**Switzerland 24.63% 9.17% 15.46%
**Liechtenstein 23.24% 2.82% 20.42%
*Cyprus 23.23% 8.44% 14.79%
Faroe Islands 23.08% 2.56% 20.52%
*Ireland 22.34% 10.16% 12.18%
*Luxembourg 21.96% 2.32% 19.64%
Moldova 21.00% 8.86% 12.14%
*United Kingdom 20.91% 13.27% 7.64%
Serbia 20.55% 14.67% 5.88%
Montenegro 18.92% 8.11% 10.81%
**Iceland 18.29% 6.50% 11.79%
Israel 18.18% 14.73% 3.45%
*Germany 17.80% 9.15% 8.65%
*Sweden 17.71% 8.77% 8.94%
*Austria 17.33% 5.79% 11.54%
*Netherlands 15.80% 6.60% 9.20%
*Belgium 15.75% 6.21% 9.54%
*Denmark 15.50% 6.48% 9.02%
*Malta 15.36% 4.78% 10.58%
*France 15.11% 8.07% 7.04%

This data includes active researchers who have migrated to another country (or countries) for at least two years.

Figure 6

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How does the EU support researcher mobility? 

Researchers who are EU nationals are able to travel, live, look for a job and work in any Member State without a visa or work permit, due to the EU’s free movement of workers principle.

The EU sets out to support the mobility of researchers within the EU. The European Research Area is intended to be “a unified research area open to the world based on the Internal Market, in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely and through which the Union and its Member States strengthen their scientific and technological bases, their competitiveness and their capacity to collectively address grand challenges”. This broad aim has driven measures to support the movement of researchers, both indirectly by removing restrictions on their movement and directly through schemes designed to support mobility. These measures apply to both EU nationals and non-EU nationals (see Box 4). 

International mobility is supported by national and international schemes, and individual countries set their own immigration rules and regulations, which researchers have to comply with. As well as their visa regulations, many factors influence researchers’ decisions about where to move and employers’ decisions about where to recruit from.

Freedom of movement of workers within the EU

Researchers who are EU nationals are able to travel, live, look for a job and work in any Member State without a visa or work permit, due to the EU’s free movement of workers principle. This right also extends to the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland. For UK research institutions, this means that the pool of ‘home’ talent from which they can recruit without having to go through the immigration system is much bigger. Compared with the administrative burden and cost of moving to and from non-EU countries, mobility within the EEA is relatively cheap and easy. 

British researchers wishing to travel to countries outside the EEA and Switzerland are subject to the immigration systems of the destination country, and non-EU researchers moving to the UK must comply with immigration rules that are predominantly under the control of the UK government. 

Box 5 includes examples of the immigration rules and regulations that researchers have to comply with when moving outside of the EU, to the USA, Australia, China, India and Turkey. It also includes examples of the requirements for moving to countries within the EU, the UK and Germany, for researchers that do not have the right to free movement within the EEA.

Box 4: Movement of non-EU nationals within the EU

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Together, these examples show the variety of immigration systems around the world, and the cost, bureaucracy and time it takes for researchers to comply with visa requirements when they move. 

Travel visa restrictions are one of the factors that influence researchers’ decisions about where to move so it is possible that a change to the principle of free movement could influence the attractiveness of the UK to other EU researchers and the willingness of British researchers to move around the EU. However since many factors influence these decisions, it is not possible to say the extent to which patterns of mobility might change.

Box 5: For a researcher with a PhD emigrating or travelling for work

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Should the UK leave the EU, the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU will determine free movement rights. EEA member countries have different agreements underpinning free movement within the EEA, for example Norway retains the right to free movement and Norwegian researchers can access European research funding. In a referendum in Switzerland, Swiss citizens voted to limit immigration, which led to limits being imposed on the principle of free movement. This affected the ability of researchers to move to Switzerland and could affect Switzerland’s ability to access European research funding in future (see Box 6).

Supporting mobility through funding

The EU has specific funding schemes to support mobility. Many other national and international organisations support the international mobility of researchers. Box 7 describes some of these, as examples of the sources of support that exist beyond the EU.

Between 2007 and 2014, 3,454 UK-based researchers received funding from the Marie Skłodowska- Curie Actions, with a total value of over €1 billion.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCAs) enable researchers to work in different countries, sectors or disciplines. MSCAs support international training networks for PhD and early career researchers, international mobility fellowships for experienced researchers, international exchanges of research staff and other programmes related to international and intersectoral research training and career development.

Between 2007 and 2014, 3,454 UK-based researchers received funding from the MSCAs, with a total value of over €1 billion. 1,297 received fellowships and 2,157 received funding for staff exchanges. Interestingly, the most popular destination for UK-based Fellows was to stay in the UK for their research. This reflects that many UK-based researchers are not UK nationals and qualify for the MSCA scheme to support a Fellowship in the UK if they have not resided here for more than 12 months in the 3 years prior to their application; over 400 chose this option. The next most-popular destinations were Germany and France, with around 100 fellows each. 

Box 6: What happened to Switzerland when they stopped free movement of people?

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Box 7: National and international funding for mobility

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An OECD study using authors’ institutional affiliations to track mobility found that scientists are more likely to move between countries which are geographically closer, socioeconomically similar and have comparable scientific cultures.

Of foreign fellows coming to the UK, over 700 came from Italy, 575 from Spain and 550 from Germany. Nearly 24% of MCSA awards in FP7 were for researchers from countries that are outside the EU Member States and its Associated Countries. 

China was the most popular country for staff exchanges with the UK, with almost 800 staff coming to the UK and about 850 UK staff going to China. This figure dwarfs the number of staff coming from or going to other countries. Brazil, Russia and India, which were the next most popular exchange partners, each sending between 100 and 200 staff to the UK. The US, Brazil, Russia and India were the next most popular destinations for UK staff, receiving between 100 and 200 UK staff.

Does EU membership attract researchers to the UK?

Researchers’ decisions to move for work are affected by a wide range of factors, both professional and personal. An OECD study using authors’ institutional affiliations to track mobility found that scientists are more likely to move between countries which are geographically closer, socioeconomically similar and have comparable scientific cultures. The study found that scientific collaboration appears to be a major factor associated with the mobility of scientists, but common language and distance between countries have a stronger impact on mobility. Scientists are more likely to move between countries who place similar importance and funding on R&D. Mobility is also related to policies such as travel visa restrictions and changing economic and research conditions.

With all of these factors playing a part, it is not possible to say whether being a member of the EU, and a part of the ERA, makes the UK a more attractive destination for researchers from outside the EU. However, EU funding is an important component of the overall research environment in the UK, as the Society’s report on the role of the EU in funding UK research shows. 

EU funding schemes are open to all researchers based in EU countries, regardless of their nationality. As an example of the extent to which non-EU nationals access European funding while based in European countries, we looked at the nationalities of the recipients of ERC Starter Grants, Consolidator Grants and Advanced Grants across a selection of European Member States and Associated Countries (Tables 6, 7 and 8), from 2009 to 2015. 

These three Grants are flagship ERC schemes that fund individuals at particular stages in their research careers. For all three, some researchers move to countries with access to ERC funding specifically to receive these Grants. However, we cannot conclude that these are the primary driver of their movement. Foreign nationals who are already based in these countries also successfully access these funding streams. 

The UK hosts a notably higher proportion of foreign nationals for ERC Starter Grants than comparable EU member states; 65% of recipients in the UK are foreign nationals, compared with 31% in France and 36% in Germany. 35% of the recipients of Consolidator Grants in the UK are foreign nationals and 26% of recipients of Advanced Grants are. For Advanced Grants, this proportion is roughly the same in France and Germany.

In Associated Countries, only Switzerland and Israel receive these ERC Grants in any notable number, and the nationality profiles of ERC Grant recipients vary markedly between Switzerland, Israel and Norway. Whereas in Switzerland recipients for all three Grants are predominantly foreign nationals, in Israel recipients are overwhelmingly Israeli researchers.

To draw stronger conclusions from these figures it would be important to understand the international make up of the research workforces in these different countries, but unfortunately comparable data was not available for this report.

Table 6

Recipients of ERC Starter Grants based in example European Member States and Associated Countries by nationality (2009 – 2015).

* Associated countries

  National of the host country (%) National of any other European country, based in host country (%) National of any non-European country, based in host country (%) Any foreign national, moving to the country specifically for the Grant (%) Total number of grants received
UK 35 39 19 7 565
France 69 19 7 5 344
Germany 64 16 10 9 405
*Switzerland 15 60 14 11 149
*Israel 96 2 0.5 0.5 175
*Norway 44 17 17 22 23

Table 7

Recipients of ERC Consolidator Grants based in example European Member States and Associated Countries by nationality (2009 – 2014).

* Associated countries

  National of the host country (%) National of any other European country, based in host country (%) National of any non-European country, based in host country (%) Any foreign national, moving to the country specifically for the Grant (%) Total number of grants received
UK 65 26 7 3 407
France 70 17 9 4 231
Germany 76 15 6 4 274
*Switzerland 33 43 18 7 120
*Israel 100 0 0 0 79
*Norway 57 22 13 9 23

Table 8

Recipients of ERC Advanced Grants based in example European Member States and Associated Countries by nationality (2009 – 2015).

* Associated countries

  National of the host country (%) National of any other European country, based in host country (%) National of any non-European country, based in host country (%) Any foreign national, moving to the country specifically for the Grant (%) Total number of grants received
UK 74 17 7 2 438
France 75 15 7 3 223
Germany 73 17 5 5 279
*Switzerland 34 48 13 5 164
*Israel 96 1 1 1 81
*Norway 60 20 12 8 25