Why Free Movement Is Key For Science

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of connectivity to the success of a university after a new study examined the importance of airport connectivity to academic performance.  At the heart of this apparent impact was the ease with which researchers can collaborate with peers and ensure a strong cross-fertilization of ideas.

It’s a concept that’s supported by a couple of recent papers highlighting the benefits of free movement of researchers between countries.  The first, led by researchers from Indiana University, examined the citation record of researchers who traveled a lot, versus those who don’t.

14 million research papers were analyzed from around 16 million researchers over a seven year period.  Around 4% of those researchers could be regarded as ‘mobile’, in the sense that they regularly authored papers with teams in different countries.  Those researchers typically had a 40% higher citation rate than their non-traveling peers.

The second paper, led by Ohio State University, compared the scientific influence of researchers by country.  They analyzed 2.5 million papers from researchers in 36 countries.  As with the previous paper, they also analyzed the mobility of the researchers and found that countries that are open and where citizens are free to travel produce science that is both more creative and innovative than those in countries with closed borders.

Indeed, they identified a number of countries, such as Switzerland and Singapore, that appeared to have an outsized influence, due in large part to the breadth and depth of their international relationships.  By contrast, much larger countries, such as South Korea, fail to make such an impact despite spending heavily on R&D, with the authors claiming this is down to the limited number of international collaborations by researchers in the country.

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