National Centre for Universities and Business Investigates Researcher Mobility
The Centre for Postdoctoral Development in Cities, Infrastructure and Energy (C-DICE) is a four-year, Research England funded programme to support the development of postdoctoral researchers, in both career development and sector specific training. As such, the mobility of the research community is a key issue to C-DICE, and one in which the Centre works to support.
The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) reports published in August 2023 are a timely reminder of some of the issues facing this key yet somewhat unrepresented sector. The four reports drawn from respondents across different sectors and perspectives focus on issues around mobility and seek to address its relevance to different stakeholders across integrated systems, innovative organisations, and individual pathways. Questions were raised in the reports to gain insights into intersectoral mobility such as: How is mobility measured? What are the numbers of researchers transitioning between sectors? When do these transitions occur in their careers? And how does mobility vary across different sectors? The reports highlighted that there is no standardised source of data or metric in the UK for comprehensively measuring how researchers move, and their experiences across different sectors.
The reports assert that the UK has a strong position as a leading knowledge economy, the Office for National Statistics (2022) indicated the UK as home to the most innovative businesses with expenditure on R&D at nearly £50 billion per year. HESA data showed mobility between industry and academia are common in the early stages of a research career, but the report suggested HESA only captures formal moves thus omitting different modes of mobility and does not discern between private sector research and non-research roles. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) survey and social media profiles of respondents (which are highly subjective) tied the increase in mobility rates to the increased experience of researchers.
The reports defined researcher mobility as “the movement of academic and business personnel for various purposes, including knowledge exchange (KE), collaboration and problem-solving”. Intersectoral mobility is defined as “researchers building careers through experiences that cross academia, industry, government and other sectors of the economy”. Following this was the identification of the three kinds of intersectoral mobility: permanent or full-time transitions or mobility facilitated through well-established partnerships and KE activities, time-bound mobility involving secondments and time-bound placements, and part-time mobility and dual positions. These definitions drew attention to relevance of intersectoral mobility as ‘facilitating the use and exploitation of knowledge generated in research and knowledge generation activities’. C-DICE has been arranging short and medium term (up to six months) placements and secondments for postdoctoral researchers since 2020 and has worked with mostly SMEs to provide a mutually beneficial skills / industry-experience exchange. Funded by C-DICE, these secondments have provided valuable CV-enhancing experience for the postdoc, and skills and knowledge on a flexible basis for industry.
The reports indicated that the sectors more likely to engage in researcher mobility initiatives were larger businesses in the high-tech manufacturing and ICT. In addition, the report grouped the relationship between businesses and universities in the UK into four broad categories: commercialisation, people-based, problem-solving and community-based with 33 modes of interactions across these categories.
There are also factors influencing mobility. The report identifies these as three motives for intersectoral mobility: financial security (remuneration, job security, social security, benefits), non-work (cultural, personal, or family-related) and, conditions necessary for creating scientific knowledge (research funding, suitable positions, research facilities and equipment, contract flexibility). Furthermore, there are also structural, institutional, and individual barriers to researcher mobility. First, the reports showed timescale incompatibility and challenges with obtaining IP agreements as major barrier to mobility between businesses and universities. Next, systemic and structural barriers linked to protected characteristics and inflexible contracts are identified. Overall, these barriers have been identified at structural, institutional, and individual levels.
Inflexible contracts have also been identified as a barrier to mobility. C-DICE have indeed found this to be true with their placements and secondments and have gained agreement from EPSRC to approve requests for no-cost extensions for this purpose, which has not yet been taken up. If universities are planning on increasing opportunities for mobility for researchers, the structuring of the way contracts are written will have to be revised.
Further research and collection of data is recommended to develop the conversation on mobility of researchers ‘to gain a more comprehensive understanding of intersectoral mobility, further data collection is needed, focusing on researchers’ career trajectories, their demographic background and identifying the potential obstacles they may face’. Lastly, NCUB highlighted that action is needed to minimise the loss of these highly valuable research skills in the workforce.
C-DICE welcomes the reports and the call for more conversations and better data gathering to support researchers in the UK. C-DICE is already supporting researchers in taking ownership of their career development and mobility through targeted training and development opportunities for careers in and beyond academia. C-DICE is also supporting postdoctoral researchers via grants to create and develop networks, through placements and secondments which provide skills and experience to transition to other careers after their postdoc contracts, in sandpits which enable postdocs to develop independent research on real-world industry-created problems, and through micro-credentials to provide evidence of skills to help the transition to other careers.
The definitions, opportunities and barriers identified in the NCUB reports on mobility has highlighted the current scope and gaps on researcher mobility to further the conversation by relevant stakeholders on not just mobility but also the talent and skills base for improving the UK economy. Postdoctoral researchers are perhaps underrepresented in the report but are directly affected by all the findings. We look forward to the next steps and to supporting the calls for change made in the reports.
The NCUB reports:
- A qualitative deep dive into experiences and attitudes towards the cross-sector mobility of researchers
Read C-DICE secondment case studies here Case Studies – C-DICE (cdice.ac.uk)
I J Ikpeh and Sharon Henson