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EU Expansion Did Not Increase Cross-Border Research, Study Finds

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EU expansion in 2004 and 2007 led to a "brain drain" from newer to older EU members. | Carla Schaffer / AAAS

The enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and again in 2007 did not increase cross-country research collaboration between new and existing member countries, a study in the 12 April issue of Science Advances reports.

Instead, academics migrated from new EU member countries into existing ones like Germany and the United Kingdom. These movements eliminated cross-border links between scientists in new and existing EU countries.

"Political events as big as the EU 2004 and 2007 enlargements are rare, but when they do occur, they represent enormous social experiments that scientists can use to study the mechanisms driving complex social systems," said Alexander Petersen, assistant professor in the Ernest and Julio Management Program at the School of Engineering, University of California Merced. "We used these enlargements to study the interaction of two types of cross-border activity: international collaboration in scientific publication and human mobility."

The EU expansion unintentionally led to EU "disintegration," as international collaboration rates decreased due to sudden relocation of high-skilled labor in Europe, Petersen said.

The unexpected finding challenges central tenets underlying the European Research Area, a system of research programs integrating the EU's science resources. By eliminating the challenges of cross-border research, the European Research Area aims to increase the EU's international scientific competitiveness.

Petersen, Omar Doria Arrieta, a data scientist at Cambridge Management Consulting Labs, and Fabio Pammolli, a professor in the department of management, economics and industrial engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan, studied cross-border collaborations on millions of research papers published between 1996 and 2012. They also analyzed data on government investment, skilled professional mobility and global migration.

They found that the expansion of the EU in 2004 and 2007, which brought 12 new countries into the EU, dampened cross-border research collaboration in both cases.

In principle, the number of opportunities to collaborate between new and existing member countries should have grown with each EU enlargement. World Bank data show the 2004 enlargement increased the number of EU researchers working in research and development by 11%.

"What is truly fascinating about collaboration is not only the dynamics according to which it works, but the grand challenges that get international teams around a common table to cooperate," Petersen said.

"And cooperation, although sometimes doesn't seem like it, cooperation after all, is one of the defining features of our human race."

The Science Advances study itself provides an example of international collaboration, drawing three researchers from three different countries; the trio came together in Lucca, Italy during their study and since moved their separate ways. The authors sought to explain why their analysis showed cross-country collaboration was lower than it would have been without the EU enlargements.

One factor may have been the relatively rapid migration of mobile academics out of the countries that became EU members in 2004 and 2007.

"We had discontinuity, which has been extremely quick and abrupt," Pammolli said. "That discontinuity has, at an institutional level, had consequences on the mobility of high skilled human capital."

Concentration in hubs is a natural step in the growth of science, Pammolli added, as talented academics tend to flock together. But for the benefit of the entire system, these hubs need to work with groups of spread-out researchers, to generate a "backbone of research centers distributed across Europe," he explained.

Redistribution of academics to established hubs in western Europe resulted in weakening the European Research Area collaboration network and hindering collaboration with the newer EU countries, the study found.

Arrieta related the findings to his personal experience as a mobile academic. When he moved from Colombia to Barcelona, Spain to study for his master's degree, he lost touch with contacts in Colombia. When he moved again to do his Ph.D. in Italy, he lost his contacts he had forged in Barcelona.

"We are not saying that mobility is wrong," Arrieta said. "It's a normal consequence." Arrieta and his colleagues suggest that future EU programs and policies also encourage academics to move from older to newer EU member countries and look for ways to entice academics to remain in newer EU countries.

One positive finding in the study was an increase in the amount of western to eastern high skilled migration, compared to prior EU expansions.

"Emergence of this channel going from west to east is really a positive signal of European brain circulation," Petersen said. "Which is this idea of really the high-skilled knowledge capital going in all directions."

The authors have yet to study how Brexit, the United Kingdom's decision to leave the EU, will impact the European Research Area. Pammolli speculated that Germany, and perhaps France, may become more attractive to EU academics after the United Kingdom's departure from the EU.

"This study demonstrates how analysis of large datasets can provide insights into the impacts of policy changes," Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, said. "With large changes such as those associated with Brexit coming in the near future, the results of this study suggest that physical movement of scientists could have a significant effect on scientific collaborations."