It’s time for Europe to take a broader view of mobility

07 Feb 2019 | News

Talent mobility can involve crossing borders – but there are lots of other ways the EU could promote movement of smart people, a Science|Business conference heard.  Targeted measures are needed in Horizon Europe

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, thinks the EU should come up with bespoke interaction schemes to help researchers move across borders. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

Talent mobility – helping researchers, students and skilled workers move – is normally thought of in just one dimension: geographically, across borders. But there are a number of other dimensions, such as moving between academia and industry, working remotely with researchers in other countries and crossing between disciplines.

These are all routes by which the EU can promote mobility, and help to build the talent base in Europe and elsewhere, said participants at a Science|Business conference 5 February.

“The EU should take on mobility much more centrally,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. For example, EU-Africa programmes should aim to strengthen the capacity of Africa and increase the capabilities of its universities. Similarly, the EU’s interactions with southeast Asia should actively promote talent development. “It’s not enough to say ‘open up Horizon Europe’; you’ve got to think of bespoke ways of interacting,” Palmowski said.

Take the case of Luxembourg. It is hard to believe that with a population of half a million, the country did not have its own university until 15 years ago. Coming so late to the party, and with no higher education base on which to build, forced the university to look outwards from day one. By necessity, 80 per cent of staff are from a foreign country, said Jens Kreisel, vice rector of research at the University of Luxembourg. “Talent mobility is part of our DNA,” he said. The resulting cultural diversity promotes excellence. “The intelligence of a group scales with diversity,” Kreisel said.

In contrast, only six per cent of the faculty of TU Berlin is international. “We are trying to increase [this figure] but there are difficulties, in particular the requirement to teach in German at an undergraduate level,” said Angela Ittel, vice president of strategic development, junior scholars and teacher development at TU Berlin.

Mobility is a motivating factor when recruiting staff to Chinese telecoms company   Huawei’s European Research Institute, said Walter Weigel, vice president the institute. “Our headquarters are 10,000 kilometres away, so mobility is obviously a big issue,” he said.

The 2,400 researchers who work at the institute are nationals of 60 countries; two thirds of them have PhDs. “We have no philosophical definition of talent. We are an international company and need good research and development. It’s talented researchers who do this,” Weigel said. “We don’t care where people come from. [The question is] can they do top notch research.”

Technical skills and experience are essential. But soft factors, such as handling cultural differences between Europe and China on issues ranging from the cuisine to approaches to decision making, are also important, said Weigel.

Moving between industry and academia

For Xavier Prats Monné, special advisor at the Teach for All organisation and former director general of both the EU’s health and education directorates, the essence of talent is having the attitude to take on difficult things, and to learn from making mistakes. “I don’t think [talent] is something you are born with,” he said.

From this perspective, universities are not sausage machines for equipping students with skills needed by corporate R&D. Rather, the two need to cooperate in fostering talent. Unfortunately, there remains a tendency to view such close links with industry as “prostituting” academic values, Prats Monné said.

The key to overcoming this attitude is to think in terms of partnership, rather than contracts, Weigel said.

Ittel agreed partnership is a critical factor. “We structure the experience of partnership by developing research questions together, and working out what to do, so we are not prostituting ourselves,” she said.

There are existing models of fruitful partnerships on which Horizon Europe can draw to increase talent mobility. TU Berlin, for example, has a joint programme with industry focussing on young women who come from corporate jobs to the university for two years, to further their careers. “It’s a very successful programme,” Ittel said. “We didn’t think it would be, because we didn’t think companies would let talent go, and that people would fit in. But they do.”

Palmowski agreed, it is important “not to think in terms of easy categories” when characterising the industry-academic divide. He cited the new National Automotive Centre at Warwick University, set up with £150 million from Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors UK, and £15 million from the UK government. The research carried out at the centre will involve all the companies involved in the automotive supply chain.

“A huge amount is happening” in terms of industry/academic collaboration, said Palmowski. “We shouldn’t overlook that.” If there is tension between industry and academe, it comes from the different timelines and different ways of thinking about problems. “Universities need to pursue blue sky research,” Palmowski said. “But we have become much better at working with industry; people are coming to us.”

Despite some successes in finessing the cultural hurdles, there remain obstacles to talent mobility between academia and industry, chief of which is the disparity in salaries, said Ittel. “Money is a problem. It can be difficult to move from industry to a university and lots of excellent people leave us for industry,” she said.

That underlines the imperative to build a deeper, more mobile talent base in Europe. As Weigel observed, there are not enough trained people to go round. Huawei has to compete for talent with other leading technology companies, such as Apple and Google, and that is driving up salaries.At the same time, companies are aware of their dependence on fundamental research to provide the feedstock for future products. “It is absolutely not in industry’s interests to attract all the talent out of universities,” Weigel said.

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