Migrating researchers

It is not hard to think of major scientific discoveries or ground-breaking social or literary analyses that were produced by leading academics working in countries in which they were immigrants. Albert Einstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Hayek, Seamus Heaney, Otto Kahn-Freund, Michael Scharma, Tim Berners-Lee are just some of the many names that spring immediately to mind; in fact, the list is endless. The research community is a global one, and people are constantly on the move to find the ideal place to connect with other researchers, or get the best facilities, or seek out a congenial setting; and indeed some move because they are fleeing oppression or narrow-mindedness.

A country that does not welcome academic migrants without reservation is a country destined to be amongst the global also-rans when it comes to discovery, innovation and economic advancement.

It is in this context that one should see the letter published in yesterday’s Times newspaper signed by eight British-based Nobel prize winners, in which they sound the alarm about the potential impact of the British government’s immigration policy on academic research and Britain’s place in the global academic league. The current Conservative government plans to place a cap on immigration to the UK. The Nobel laureates’ letter ends as follows:

‘The UK must not isolate itself from the increasingly globalised world of research – British science depends on it. The Government has seen fit to introduce an exception to the rules for Premier League footballers. It is a sad reflection of our priorities as a nation if we cannot afford the same recognition for elite scientists and engineers.’

In truth, I might argue with the writers’ apparent non-appreciation of football, and more seriously with the omission of the arts and humanities from the above comment, but that aside they have a very important point. I am in any case  hugely sceptical about restrictive immigration policies where these are based on xenophobic instincts, but even if you leave out all that it would be crazy to opt for a voluntary disadvantage in the global competition for discovery. And before we get too self-satisfied in Ireland, we also need to look much more closely at how we grant (or fail to grant, or delay granting) visas and work permits to migrating scholars. It is time for all of us to stop shooting ourselves enthusiastically in the foot.

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10 Comments on “Migrating researchers”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Eh, they didn’t actually say anything against football (or the arts) just that they’d like elite scientists to get the same recognition. Seems fair enough.
    Canada and Australia, I believe, operate a points system related to the scarcity of particular skills. Thats the smart way of doing things. If we can attract highly skilled people at the expense of other countries, why not?
    I can see merit in the UK removing the exception for footballers as it looks increasingly like Man Utd’s best chance of recovering the Premiership from Chelsea.

    • wendymr Says:

      Canada has a points system for its skilled worker immigration programme, yes – but in the last reassessment of the in-demand occupations academics (professors – researchers weren’t on it) were removed from the list.

      Having said that, it is possible to immigrate with a verified job offer and labour market opinion (to demonstrate that it wasn’t possible to fill that position internally), and academics would have a much easier job of proving the uniqueness of their skills. It’s also much easier to get a temporary work permit for academic jobs.

      On the subject of immigration as a whole though… rather than go tl;dr, I’ll just point out that there’s no point offering wide leeway in who is accepted if once in the country immigrants are not accepted by employers and others as equally meritorious candidates compared to those born in the country.

      • Perry Share Says:

        I wasn’t familiar with that term tl;dr before
        Now that I know what it means, I can see it might be a very useful thing to put on the front of particularly tedious assignments 🙂
        Quick, and cool.

        • wendymr Says:

          I thought I might get asked for clarification on that one 😉

          For those who didn’t look it up: too long; didn’t read, otherwise known as teal deer.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Ireland doesn’t need restrictive immigration laws to keep foreign researchers out. All it needs is excessive managerialism and constant monitoring and programming of the activities of academics, a propaganda war against the public service, special surtaxes on PS workers (pensions levy) and chronically underfunded universities.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Ernie, despite the cuts, academic salaries in Ireland are very generous compared to the UK, France and many other countries. And we are not unique in our managerialism either. We are probably some way behind the Uk in terms of monitoring.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        What evidence do you have to support the idea that the salaries are generous here? By which I mean: is the take-home pay (after pensions levy etc.) relative to the cost of living generous here? I’m not convinced it is. At all.

        It is certainly not generous compared to the US and Canada. The best institutions there have resisted the managerialism that mediocre institutions have embraced so enthusiastically.

        This means that all the best researchers, unless they have some compelling personal reason to come to Ireland, will go to the US.

        As for being “behind” the UK in our monitoring: the UK is fast becoming an academic Chernobyl. Any talented academic who happens not to have left already is planning her exit strategy as we speak.

        Interesting that Ferdinand mentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein, no doubt the greatest 20th-century philosopher. Wittgenstein, who spent 10 years meditating on the ideas of the Tractatus, published no real articles and never published another book in his lifetime, would today be hounded by some benighted bureaucrat about his lack of “production.”

        When I came here from my native land, Ireland had several advantages over other places I was considering. It offered tenure immediately. It paid a reasonable (though by no means astronomical) salary. And academics were free to get on with our work with minimal interference. It also had some serious disadvantages: geographical isolation, abysmal research infrastructure (particularly libraries), an anti-intellectual and mercenary culture among the students. It has now surrendered those few recruitment advantages. That it has done so voluntarily is just one of many examples of the country’s knack for shooting itself in the head.

        • kevin denny Says:

          Ernie, compared to France, gross salaries are much higher and deductions are lower: a full professor there makes about Euro52,656 per annum normally, a fraction of what it is in Ireland. Ok maybe you get a better health service but I have little doubt that real disposable income for academics is higher in Ireland.
          Compared to the UK, average tax/social security rates are probably not that different and pay rates there are much lower (professors there make about Stg50,000 on average) so again net disposable income would be almost certainly higher for academics in Ireland.
          So, what evidence do you have?

  3. anna notaro Says:

    In my mind the ‘migrating researcher’ best embodies the same concept of research as intellectual endevour which can take us places both figuratively and literally. Also as James Clifford notes, the Greek term theorein is a practice of travel and observation. “Theory” is a product of displacement, comparison, a certain distance. To theorize, one leaves home!

  4. M. Vincent Says:

    @Kevin Denny

    Your professor salaries (50K) for the UK are the entry level. Those who have Head of Department/School duties etc. will get paid more. Those who are active researchers and internationally competitve in their Research field and helping a Departments ranking bring in more funding will ne higher paid. I would suggest that for many the salaries are over £80K and could be significanly higher again. Ernie Ball is correct that one needs to consider take home pay and price of pensions and levies etc. Ireland is expensive compared to parts of the UK (excepting London for example). In Ireland it is not as sophisticated as the UK or US. Most Profs here get the same irrespective of their outputs.
    I think a more sophisticated analysis is required rather that just saying £50K is the salary of Profs in the UK.


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