We have a lot of outdated notions of what a scientist looks like. Among them: that scientists stay in one laboratory room, bent over the same Bunsen burners, for decades. Now a new study suggests that researchers are far more mobile than we realized—and that this mobility is hugely beneficial for science. The research is part of a special issue of Science focused on human migration.
“Ideas do not carry passports,” the Science editors note in their introduction to the issue. “But lines on maps, as well as policies and pressures that influence who does or does not cross them, can be powerful determinants of whether and how ideas and skills align to advance scientific discovery and technological and economic progress.”
Like the naked gecko, which squirms out of its skin when cornered, the movements of individual scientists are often difficult to keep hold of. There are so many of them, many with the same names, often affiliated with multiple institutions. And while there have been studies of scientists’ travels, these are conducted anonymously, which makes it impossible to track any one person’s migration patterns.
Fortunately, a nonprofit organization called ORCID is now making the process a whole lot easier by offering each researcher their own unique ID code. In the nine years since its launch, ORCID has registered more than 3 million scientists, each with their own story and dashed line across the globe.
This is great for researchers with common names. It’s also great for social scientists, who used the data to survey 17,852 scientists working in 16 countries to find out where their careers were taking them.
The answer seems to be “everywhere, man.” Survey respondents were highly mobile, often moving among several countries as their research progressed. Many of these moves were driven by necessity, author John Bohannon writes in Science. “You spend your days at the border of human knowledge. Depending on the topic, only a dozen people may deeply understand your research—let alone help you push it further—and they are scattered across the world. For many, completing a Ph.D., doing postdoctoral research, and landing a permanent job all in one country is impossible. And so you wander.”
But rather than disrupting the scientific enterprise, the researchers found, migration actually seems to enrich the quality of research. Survey respondents who moved more often were more successful in their research and publication, and departments with higher proportions of migratory researchers thrived. Conversely, countries hostile to immigration—including a post-9/11 U.S.—have taken a hit.
More research is needed to confirm these findings. The survey participants were not a representative sample, rather a self-selected group of researchers who use ORCID. Like many online database users, they’re younger than average, and it’s not clear how this affects the study results.
But individual researchers say the trends mirror their own experience of migration and its benefits, both professional and personal.
“Living and working in another country … makes you more humane and understanding,” biological engineer Helena Pinheiro told Bohannon. At the same time, she says, “crossing borders has always left me with the wish that borders would cease to exist.”