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For scientific impact, open the borders  

Caroline Wagner

Countries with high researcher mobility get more recognition.

Governments around the world are closing borders: Look at the 2018 Italian election, the Trump administration, and Brexit. How will this trend affect R&D?

Anti-immigration policies negatively affect science, says Professor Caroline Wagner, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, Ohio State University.

“People who study creativity say diversity is quite important in firing the imagination and getting people to come up with new ideas,” she says.

International teams have a diversity of viewpoints, insights, and networks to draw on as they conduct and disseminate their research. Wagner’s conclusions are based in part on her 2017 study in Nature with Koen Jonkers of the European Commission. They found that more government funding (as percent of gross domestic product, GDP) did not correlate strongly with scientific impact, measured by publication citations. Instead, a measure of openness – on which Denmark and Sweden scored well – links to scientific recognition.

A key factor: mobility

Wagner and Jonkers used data on 2.5 million scientific publications and their citations over three years. They also had data on 36 countries from the Organization for Economic Co­operation and Development. This allowed analysis of government R&D spending and movement of scientists across borders, which was their openness metric. More government funding meant more publications but not more impact, Wagner and Jonkers found. Instead, factors associated with impact are international coauthors and researchers moving in and out of a country.

Sweden and Denmark, with Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, all punched above their weight, scoring as about as high or higher than the United States on impact and higher on openness. Norway and Finland performed relatively well, as did the United Kingdom, although that could change with Brexit.

Policy matters

“Opennness to external collaborations is a policy choice,” Wagner says. “Denmark, Sweden, and to some extent Finland and Norway had high scientific impact for their size. That’s because of strategic policy decisions the countries made years ago to pay attention to and invest in science and technology development.”

Citations don’t mean research quality, but they do show recognition and reach. If countries want their scientific work to be widely noticed, Wagner says, they should support international researchers in networking: meeting informally, face-to-face, making connections and setting up their own teams that disperse naturally when the project is done.

Wagner, who worked for the U.S. Congress, says that policymakers want to know if funding multinational teams just gives money, trained researchers, and ideas to other countries. Not at all. Another study in the Nature issue found that the publication records of scientists working abroad show they stay connected to their home country. Wagner and Jonkers show that international research brings positive attention to a nation. And an editorial in the same Nature issue notes an opportunity the Nordic countries might be well poised to take – US and UK isolationist policies may allow other nations to step up and be the next scientific powerhouses by welcoming international researchers.

Read the study here!

Photo of Caroline Wagner: Ohio State University