Crossing borders is good for science

Scientist mobility leads to better science, a new study shows. The impact factor of foreign-born scientists is higher than the impact factor of native scientists. Should more academics get on the move?

The internationalization of the academic world has traditionally focused on student mobility. But a new study published in Science today suggests that it’s not just students who should go abroad – scientists should be crossing borders as well. Scientist mobility, the authors write, “comes with a boost in research quality that would have been absent without mobility.”

Impact factor

The authors – Giuseppe Scellato, Chiara Franzoni and Paula Stephan – surveyed nearly 18,000 scientists working in 16 different countries. They discovered that, on average, foreign scientists have a higher impact factor than ‘home-grown’ scientists. Even though scientists are part of a global community in which knowledge can be exchanged freely – as the article reads, “ideas do not carry passports” – it seems that scientific migration may contribute to better science.

Science, 19 May 2017

Science, 19 May 2017

Brain drain?

The impact factor is a widely-used measure for the quality of scientific research, but it should be noted that some do not agree. Anti-impact-factor campaigners insist that you can’t measure quality by counting citations. In addition, there are concerns that scientist mobility may lead to ‘brain drain’ when a country’s best and brightest researchers move abroad to follow job opportunities and research funds.

The Dutch have nothing to worry about, a study conducted by the Rathenau Institute suggests. Dutch researchers belong to the most mobile scientists in the world. But in contrast to the situation in the United States and the UK, where the impact factor of incoming scientists is often higher than the impact factor of outgoing researchers, citation counts of outbound and inbound researchers in the Netherlands are more or less the same. According to the Rathenau Insitute, there is currently no net ‘brain drain’ or ‘brain gain’ to be observed in the Netherlands. 

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