Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Going Mobile

'The ERA? Isn't that like a European remake of Avatar?'
As regular readers of this column will know I’m something of a data geek. I don’t profess to a huge expertise, but I’m fascinated by the statistics underlying all the applications and awards we handle.
It’s like discovering the secret patterns that explain the world, which goes back to my love of semiotics. So when a colleague presented me with slides from the European Research Council outlining ‘indicative statistics’ from its Starting Grants competition last year, I was in heaven.

What interested me most was not the success rates, which have never been great for the ERC (they average about 10-15 per cent, with a low point in the first round of 3.4 per cent); rather, it was the mobility.

Mobility isn’t necessarily the sexiest of topics. It conjures up images of worthy if somewhat perfunctory exchanges. Boxes ticked, memoranda of understanding signed, that sort of thing. However, mobility is one of the fundamental pillars of the European Union, enshrined in Section 1, article 179 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU:

“The Union shall have the objective of strengthening its scientific and technological bases by achieving a European research area in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely, and encouraging it to become more competitive, including in its industry, while promoting all the research activities deemed necessary by virtue of other Chapters of the Treaties.”

A bold aspiration. Essentially what the Commission wants is a borderless continent in which researchers can move, work and push back the boundaries of knowledge in sweet harmony. To make this possible it proposed the establishment of a European Research Area, or ERA, in 2000.

It makes sense, but inevitably the implementation has not been that simple. Europe is just too diverse a place. Although the goodwill, the policy and (most importantly) the money is in place to support it, Europe’s contrasting histories, cultures, languages and attitudes conspire to make real mobility difficult.

It was in this context that I found the ERC stats interesting. They were a snapshot of the progress that was being made in embedding the principles of mobility within the ERA. The stats broke down the awards by both host country and nationality. For most countries, there was some correlation between the number of nationals with grants, and the number of grant holders the country hosted. For instance, Germany was host to 72 grant holders, and 71 Germans got awards. Of these, roughly a third were being hosted abroad.

Most countries now have a similar level of mobility as Germany, which suggests that that the principles of ERA are slowly taking hold, However, some outliers (such as Ireland and Denmark) have none, and all of their grant-holding nationals are hosted at home.

It is worth noting that while there is commonly a correlation between the numbers of nationals with grants and the number of grants hosted, there is not a direct relationship between them. This is presented most starkly in the two countries where there is a large discrepancy between the two: the UK and the Netherlands. The UK hosted 67 grant winners, but only 18 British nationals won a grant; the Netherlands hosted 41, but only 23 Dutch nationals were winners.

This suggests, perhaps, that the UK and the Netherlands are seen as a good places to do research. Those already in these countries clearly don’t feel the need to be mobile, but those outside are attracted to them, and willing to move to engage more fully with them.

This attractiveness could be down to the quality of their universities (while I’m a sceptic of such league tables, the Times Higher World University Rankings suggest that the UK has 28 of the top 200 global universities, and the Netherlands 11). Alternatively, it may be down to the open cultures of these countries, or to something as simple as language: English, and openness to English, allows people to more easily access the global research community.

But the UK and the Netherlands should not be complacent. Strength comes through diversity and difference, and encouraging people to engage with different cultures and learn from different ways of seeing and doing will be to the benefit of their national research bases, as well as to Europe as a whole. ERA can only be a reality when all are engaging with it equally.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in April 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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