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Getting One Step Closer to the Drafting of Transnational Researcher Mobility Tools

In December 2016, the Lithuanian Research and Higher Education Monitoring and Analysis Centre (MOSTA) launched a survey in order to map Baltic Sea Region-wide academic and researchers´ mobility trends. The Baltic Science Network´s transnational workshop in Vilnius Researchers’ Mobility in the Baltic Sea Region: Where Do We Stand and How to Move Forward?” served to introduce wider audiences to the results of this survey, as well as to learn about the mobility schemes existing in the Baltic Sea Region. The workshop also offered a more nuanced look at BSN national discussions and country-specific challenges, thus facilitating the mapping of potential solutions and how they could be addressed in a joint, transnationally coordinated manner.

The event was opened by Ms. Jurgita Petrauskienė, Minister of Education and Science of Lithuania.  The Minister defined the Baltic Science Network (BSN) as an initiative of specific relevance to research advancement in the Baltic Sea States. Ms. Jurgita Petrauskienė’s opening remarks were followed by presentations of representatives of the European Commission and German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Namely, Paul Harris, representing the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture  of the European Commission, presented an overview of the different Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and other EU programmes enabling the mobility of researchers. Dr Holger Finken (German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD), presented the Marie Curie COFUND-supported DAAD postdoctoral programme P.R.I.M.E. (Postdoctoral Researchers International Mobility Experience) and provided a nuanced analysis of DAAD supported fellows as well as the main science domains represented among them. It should be noted that DAAD was invited to the BSN workshop as one of the long-standing mobility services in the BSR.

Dr Tom Schumacher (Kiel University) introduced the workshop attendants to the main findings of his report “International Mobility of Researchers in the Baltic Sea Region”. The basic statistical picture of mobility trends was complemented with a country specific analysis, which leads to a number of conclusions relevant to further discussions on the advancement of research excellence in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR).  Namely, for many BSR countries the main mobility partners are located outside the region. Mobility patterns differ between lower and higher career level researchers: the higher the career level of a researcher, the more distant the mobility destinations are pursued. Researchers living and working in small states can benefit more from being internationally mobile than their colleagues in big states. Brain drain versus brain gain patterns of researcher mobility aren´t simply questions of quantities of human resources and their migration flows but also of quality brought to the research centres hosting these individuals.

The analysis reveals that specific attention should be drawn towards language considerations. Language can be a decisive obstacle to the potentially incoming researcher for a number of reasons, like if the host country´s language is rather exotic or usually not taught in other countries. In general terms, there is a lack of English-language programmes at universities. Further challenges are posed by the fact that administrative procedures can only be conducted in the host country´s language. More vibrant mobility in the Baltic Sea Region is also restrained by the fact that there are strict legal language requirements for foreign applicants to researcher or teaching positions. Therefore, it comes as a no big surprise that countries with close linguistic and cultural ties tend to have frequent mutual researcher exchanges. Typical examples from the BSR are such country pairs as Norway&Denmark, Iceland&Denmark, Finland&Estonia, Ukraine&Poland and Germany&Switzerland.

The most active mobility is taking place among the Nordic states due to low administrative barriers, for example, there are no residence permits required. Nordic states have a high compatibility of social security systems. Special Nordic research programmes, such as NordForsk, and funding instruments, such as Nordic Centre of Excellence, are put in place.

In order to explain the most recent dynamics, the second part of the workshop was dedicated to present the main national workshop findings. Several BSR countries are facing similar challenges. Thus, a number of thematic focus areas were identified which could serve to advance the BSN discussions in terms of specific priorities chosen for joint mobility scheme proposal.

BSN is well placed to draft innovative tools for researcher mobility, since a majority of countries identified the same challenges, such as family considerations once settling in a foreign location, considerable administrative burden which has to be managed prior, during and after the research visit, language barriers (elaborated in more detail in Dr Tom Schumacher´s presented research).

For example, the challenge of combining research tasks with part-time or full-time work duties is common among a number of BSN member states. Moreover, this issue taps not only into the quality aspect of the research performed simultaneously with the work-related duties, but also into the financial provisions of the mobility scheme. The quality of research would be considerably heightened if the mobility scheme would ensure sufficient financial provisions for everyday living expenses of the researcher.

Furthermore, the Danish national discussions touched upon the challenge of closed career track systems, where the young aspiring researcher is pushed early in advance to decide between a policy expert or scientific career, since changing positions within these sectors in the current set-up is not possible. Likewise, Estonia elaborated that a considerable room for improvement could be identified in building more synergies between various mobility schemes to serve better the purposes of scientific advancement and research excellence.

The findings of the BSN survey were presented by Tadas Juknevičius, representing MOSTA. The overall conclusion was that the survey confirmed the nature of the challenges identified and main points raised during the national discussions. Some of the most common reasons why researchers are keen on pursuing their work in a peer institution is to reach their professional development goals, engage more actively in international cooperation networks, thus making themselves better known among experts in the specific research domains, as well as to benefit from a high quality research environment. A more elaborate analysis of the findings will be made available in a BSN working paper to be published on the BSN website during the upcoming weeks.

In order to put the BSN work in a wider macro-regional context, the ScanBalt General Secretary Peter Frank introduced the audience to the experience of developing an EUSBSR flagship under the Policy Area Innovation. More than a decade-long advancement of ScanBalt and its export of best practice to the Danube Region, with relevance to the EU Strategy for the Danube Region, as well as engagement in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network served as a thought provoking examples in the context of BSN aspirations to set-up an enduring macro-regional fora focusing on transnational researcher mobility.

Fredrik Melander, representing the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education, identified three factors contributing to the researcher mobility from the experience of the European Spallation Source. Firstly, in-kind contributions to the large scale research infrastructures drive mobility, since the tasks associated with such contributions entail staff visits. Secondly, seconded experts represent the researcher flows of a more enduring nature. Thirdly, the operational phase of large scale infrastructures, when facilities are practically used for conducting measurements, mobilise a great variety of staff contracted on a regular basis, spanning from scientists, technical support staff to general personnel and financial administrators. It should be taken into consideration that staff employed for 2 – 3 years at a specific facility becomes a valuable human resource whose retention is of specific importance due to considerable intangible costs associated with loosing personnel well-acquainted with the institutional practices, thus contributing to the overall smooth operation of the institution.

The workshop was concluded by a panel discussion moderated by Žilvinas Martinaitis, representing Visionary Analytics. The panel involved six panellists, among them Paul Harris, representing the European Commission, and Dr Holger Finken, representing DAAD.  Klaus von Lepel, BSN Project Director, representing the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Ministry of Science, Research and Equalities, reiterated as one of the options joint lobbying for European funding allocation to the BSN drafted mobility schemes in the framework of the next Framework Programme. Ramojus Reimeris, Director of MOSTA, mentioned, by way of an example of the administrative obstacles in the mobility schemes, that MOSTA had considered applying to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, yet did not take a chance because of additional administrative expenses that might have been entailed when applying. Paula Lindroos, representing the Baltic University Programme in Åbo Akademi University, invited to think of potential ways how to make the BSR more attractive for researchers based in rather distant regions to reinforce the brain gain of the Baltic Sea Region. Tomas Andersson, representing the Swedish Research Council, expressed interest in exploring tailored solutions, where BSN members could cluster in accordance with their top priorities for researcher mobility advancement.

The BSN workshop in Vilnius served as the concluding transnational meeting, prior to further elaboration of macro-regional researcher mobility tools.  The workshop was combined with a visit to the rather recently expanded campus of Vilnius University, encompassing the National Open Access Scholarly Communication and Information Centre and the Centre of Life Sciences. Also visited was the recently inaugurated National Centre of Physical and Technological Sciences.  The new facilities serve as vivid examples of Lithuanian investments in advancing smart specialisation priorities. Lithuania is now taking targeted actions to create knowledge and technology transfer systems in R&D institutions with the view to making use of the R&D infrastructure in place in a more effective way. The latter actions are also supposed to foster R&D commercialisation, science and business cooperation, and to accelerate the development of the knowledge-intensive business sector.

Photo album of the event is accessible on the CBSS Flickr here.

For a more elaborate overview of national workshops please consult the publications on the BSN website here and here.