Skip to main content

Survey on Global Research Travel Finds Benefits and Barriers

Scientific researchers are highly supportive of the value of international scientific collaborations. Many travel to attend scientific conferences, others relocate to international scientific institutions for more than a year, a survey found. | HILDGRIM/FLICKR (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scientific researchers express concern about how the United States’ political climate and the upcoming split of the United Kingdom from the European Union will impact global collaborations through international travel, according to a survey report released Tuesday on the international movement of scientists.

Respondents raised questions about how changes to United States immigration and visa policies may affect travel into and out of the U.S., and how the U.K.’s separation from the European Union could impact the movement of British scientists abroad and the travel of international scientists into the U.K. to participate in joint research.

An early-career British scientist working in Germany, for example, underscored the importance of international travel, saying, “Particularly while Brexit is creating so many problems and uncertainties, this experience is making it clear to me how important international collaboration and goodwill is for the success of scientific research.”

Scientists travel abroad to participate in scientific conferences, training sessions and collaborations with other scientists. Some relocate to foreign countries to work in laboratories for more than a year or take positions in multinational research institutes among other scientific opportunities.

The online survey was commissioned by Together Science Can, an initiative to highlight and protect international scientific collaborations, and the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical charitable foundation, as well as Together Science Can partners including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific organizations.  

“International mobility is important to advancing science and the careers of researchers,” said Tom Wang, AAAS’ chief international officer and director of the Center for Science Diplomacy. “If humanity is to benefit from global science, more needs to be done to support the mobility of early career researchers and those from outside the traditionally advanced science nations.”

The four-week survey, which began in late June, drew responses from 2,465 scientific researchers representing 109 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

RAND Europe, which conducted the online survey, found respondents highly supportive of international research participation, from short-term exchanges for scientific conferences to long-term relocations to scientific institutions to participate in international research projects or training programs.

Nearly all respondents, a total of 96%, praised the value of international travel in promoting scientific research, noting that collaborations spark innovative ideas, expand scientific technical skills, deepen expertise, and increase opportunities to publish scientific studies, conduct experiments and adjust the direction of scientific research.

Overall, the study found that 75% of respondents have moved to a foreign country at some point in their career to advance their research. Nearly 20% of senior researchers identified themselves as high-frequency travelers – the most frequent international scientific travelers – in a sharp contrast to the more than half of students or trainees who reported never or rarely traveling for an extensive period.

The collected data skewed in favor of international travel because survey participants were more likely to have gained experience in international research travel or were more interested in such activities, the analysis said. Still, the survey represented scientists from each stage of the research-career ladder, from early career researchers to senior researchers.

Survey respondents were overrepresented by academic scientists, those from the United Kingdom and India and researchers in the medical and health sciences fields, leaving the survey short of representing the global researcher population, the analysis noted.

Scientific research collaborations were found to be most active among European scientists. Such scientists also reported encountering the least problems in the pursuit of short-term travel as well as longer-term international relocations, making Europe “a particularly mobile and connected research community.”

The survey reported that 59% of European researchers are most likely to attend short-term foreign conferences, engage in collaborations with foreign scientific teams or take on longer-term positions in European countries. European research respondents, overall, reported they were most likely to travel at least two to four times a year, greater than other respondents.

In contrast, African and Asian scientists were most likely to run into obstacles to international travel. While the survey found that international visa requirements did not prohibit researchers from traveling to the regions included in the survey, African and Asian respondents were more likely to report encountering challenges related to the extensive time commitment and complexity of visa applications as well as the costs of obtaining a visa.

African researchers were most likely to name travel and conference expenses as the biggest hurdles to participation in international collaborations. African and Asian scientists also reported being most likely to receive financial assistance from research funders, rather than their institutions, to cover the cost of obtaining a visa and travel documents.

Respondents from Africa also were the least likely to report experiencing benefits from international research travel, instead citing the difficulty of finding research jobs abroad or information about them, the survey reported.

International travel funding needs to address complications such scientists confront and weigh the benefits other scientists receive depending on their home country, the survey stated. Among recommendations the survey called for providing African and Asian scientists help in navigating visa requirements and making information about the availability of overseas jobs more accessible.

“The international movement of researchers enables ideas to spread, collaborations to form and new perspectives to be gained, and a large proportion of researchers do not face obstacles to travel or relocation abroad,” the survey concluded. “The benefits of international movement are felt by all, but obstacles to movement are currently felt disproportionately by some. Widening the accessibility of international movement would help research to flourish and strengthen research systems.”

[Associated image: Steve Sapp/Flickr (United States Government Work)]