Attracting the best and the brightest: policies and mobility behavior in the academic ‘war for talent’

Wout Scholten, Elizabeth Koier, Edwin Horlings

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International exchange has characterized the academic community for centuries (Charle & Verger, 1994). Students have moved to other countries to attend classes at universities with a good reputation and researchers have visited each other to collaborate. Today, the field of higher education is increasingly international. Students are becoming more internationally mobile (Findlay et al. 2011; EP-Nuffic 2015), researchers are increasingly collaborating internationally (e.g. through co-publications (Kamalski & Plume 2013)) and international mobility has become a very common phenomenon among researchers (Børing et al., 2015). Policy makers at the European, national and university levels increasingly focus on the process of internationalization within the field of higher education. It is regarded simultaneously as an opportunity (brain gain and diffusion of knowledge), a threat (brain drain) and a necessity (ongoing globalization) for their future development. A common aim at the national and university level is to attract the best and the brightest researchers in order to make their respective economies and institutions competitive in a perceived global ‘war for talent’. On various levels policies are put in place in order to raise the attractiveness for good researchers and to prevent a brain drain. This raises the question how researchers’ mobility behavior can be influenced and to what extent policies may raise the attractiveness of countries and their institutions. In the academic and grey literature scholars have studied the mobility behavior of researchers in various ways. In most studies mobile researchers are asked in surveys about their prime motivation to make an international move (Franzoni et al. 2012; MORE2 2013; Conchi & Michels 2014). Their academic career and research come out as the most important reasons to be mobile. Personal reasons and terms of employment are significantly less important. Other push and pull factors are in play to describe the mobility behavior of researchers. Geographical and cultural proximity is considered a good predictor of mobility behavior (Franzoni et al. 2012; Conchi & Michels 2014; Appelt et al. 2015). Economic decline is a push factor for many researchers, as shown by the recent researcher migration flows from Italy, Spain and Greece to countries in West and North Europe (MORE2 2013). However, despite the attention for the motivations and the push and pull factors, there is still little understanding of how different factors for international mobility interact. The relation between the more important and less important factors is rarely addressed. Furthermore, policies to stimulate international attractiveness are seldom part of the studies on mobility behavior. In this paper we will study the way in which various motivations of researchers to decide to be internationally mobile interact and the role internationalization policies play in these motivations. We study the motivations for international mobility in the Dutch policy context. This context is characterized by several politicians, policy makers and university directors who have showed their concern about a rising war for talent and the Dutch inability to attract and retain the best researchers. To prevent this from happening universities have set goals to attract more international staff. The national government hopes that the national excellence funding schemes will attract foreign talent and it has implemented several general policy measures to attract highly educated foreigners (e.g. tax benefits). In order to understand the interplay of different factors of the mobility behavior of researchers and the role of internationalization policies, we make use of three data sources. First, we did a document analysis of internationalization policies at the European, national and university level. Second, in addition to the document analysis, we interviewed 12 policy makers, covering almost half of the present Dutch universities, about their experiences with a global war for talent. We selected faculty policy makers that are said to experience the strongest competition on the academic labor market. And third, we have interviewed 19 foreign researchers that have come to work in The Netherlands in the last twelve years. They were asked about their decision making process concerning their move to their current research institution in The Netherlands. They were asked about their experiences with internationalization policies as well. Our preliminary results suggest that factors influencing mobility behavior are both intertwined and segmented. The reasons for researchers to be mobile form a complex iterative process involving several types of motivations at once. International mobility occurs in a ‘window of opportunity’ where every factor falls in place or it occurs when one of the factors is so dominant that other factors are trumped. Furthermore, we find that the global war for talent and the academic labor market is segmented. In general terms the process of supply and demand is segmented by disciplines and by positions. This means that academic disciplines all compete with different types of organizations over research talent. Similarly, the competition for excellent and recognized professors is different (war for talent) than the competition for young and inexperienced postdocs (war between talent (Van Arensbergen 2014)). The former can be described as a seller’s market, the latter as a buyer’s market. The segmentation of the academic labor market is visible in the mobility behavior of researchers. We recognize four types of mobility behavior. 1. The early career researchers who are strongly motivated to gain international experience. Their situation is paradoxical: since they usually are relatively unattached they can travel anywhere, but the war between talent forces them to accept almost any position that is offered to them. Their choice for their current research group is therefore somewhat, but not completely, random. 2. The researchers who were looking for a new job because of their discontent in a former position. They have no strong preference for an international move, but their built up expertise (niche) forces them to look abroad for positions. At the same time they are bound by personal circumstances, such as a partner, children and other family. They experience a push factor to leave their position, but have limited opportunities. 3. The researchers who were offered an excellent career opportunity. In many cases this concerns a move for a higher position, such as a professorship. To make such a career move, international mobility is necessary. In some cases this once in a lifetime opportunity trumps other influencing factors. 4. The researchers who were very happy in their previous position, but nevertheless accepted a new position because of the unique research possibilities. These researchers are mostly in a tenure position and do not feel the need to change jobs. The question remains to what extent the decisions of researchers are perceptive to specific internationalization policies. We find that the mobility behavior of researchers can only be influenced to a certain degree by policies explicitly directed at attracting foreign talent, such as migration support by universities or tax benefits. More important factors are the presence of high profile researchers and unique facilities, or general factors like the reputation of a university, the standard of living, a researcher’s social and cultural preferences and the proximity to family and friends. All those factors can at most be influenced indirectly through policy measures and are long term investments. References Appelt, S., van Beuzekom, B., Galindo-Rueda, F. and de Pinho R. (2015). Which factors influence the international mobility of research scientists? in A. Geuna (ed.) Global Mobility of Research Scientists: The Economics of Who Goes Where and Why. Amsterdam: Elsevier. Børing, P., Flanagan, K., Gagliardi, D., Kaloudis, A., & Karakasidou, A. (2015). International mobility: Findings from a survey of researchers in the EU. Science and Public Policy, scv006. Charle, C., & Verger, J. (1994). Histoire des universités (Vol. 391). Presses universitaires de France. Conchi, S. and Michels. C. (2014), “Scientific mobility – An analysis of Germany, Austria, France and Great Britain”, Fraunhofer ISI Discussion Papers Innovation Systems and Policy Analysis No. 41, Karlsruhe. EP-Nuffic (2015). Internationalisering in beeld 2015. Den Haag: EP-Nuffic. Findlay, A. M., King, R., Smith, F. M., Geddes, A. and Skeldon, R. (2012), World class? An investigation of globalisation, difference and international student mobility. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37: 118–131. Franzoni, C., Scellato, G. and Stephan, P. (2012). Foreign-born scientists: Mobility patterns for 16 countries. Nature Biotechnology 30(12): 1250-1253. Kamalski, J. & Plume, A. (2013). Comparative Benchmarking of European and US Research Collaboration and Researcher Mobility. Amsterdam: Elsevier. MORE2. (2013). Support for continued data collection and analysis concerning mobility patterns and career paths of researchers. EU Commission Report. Brussels: European Commission. van Arensbergen, P. (2014), Talent Proof: Selection Processes in Research Funding and Careers. Den Haag, Rathenau Instituut.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 08 Jun 2017
EventEu-SPRI Annual Conference 2017: The future of STI - The future of STI-policy - Vienna, Austria
Duration: 07 Jun 201709 Jun 2017


ConferenceEu-SPRI Annual Conference 2017
Abbreviated titleEu-SPRI 2017
Internet address


  • international mobility
  • migration
  • researcher mobility
  • Brain gain/drain

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    Scholten, W., Koier, E., & Horlings, E. (2017). Attracting the best and the brightest: policies and mobility behavior in the academic ‘war for talent’. Abstract from Eu-SPRI Annual Conference 2017, Vienna, Austria.