Scientific mobility: an alternative to established narrative

Europe of Knowledge |

Chiara Carrozza

I spent part of my morning browsing The Researchers’ Report 2014 developed in line with the key priority of ensuring the “free circulation of knowledge” in the European Research Area (ERA), and a relevant part of it focuses on the progresses made at both European and national level in removing or alleviating some of the well-known obstacles to scientific mobility.


In common with a substantial body of scientific literature on the topic, studies such as this new report – while certainly offering relevant information for the policy and scientific community – convey a quite deep-rooted narrative of scientific mobility: a phenomenon that can be grasped within the dichotomy movement-stasis; pivoting on the nation state; associated to a stylized image of the academics (flexible, rational, independent, driven by professional ambition); governable by manoeuvring pull and push factors and, last but not least, which should be invariably regarded as “something good”, both at micro and macro level. Scientific mobility is depicted as a uniform phenomenon, mostly variable – and measurable – along its quantitative dimensions, both at the individual (duration) and at the collective scales (flows and stocks).


On the contrary, the experiences of academic migrants reveal a panorama that is much more nuanced, from the qualitative point of view: academic mobility can be strategized, materialised, institutionalised and performed in a wide variety of ways (Robertson 2010: 642; see also Cantwell 2011). It can be multi-directional or unilateral and it often repeats many times in different forms: joint research projects, special mobility programs, academic exchange or time-limited work under fixed-term contract. (Ivancheva and Gourova 2011, 187; see also Ackers 2005).


Some researchers are mobile some of the time, whilst for others, moving has become a routine part of their life and they are constantly mobile around the world. In this perspective, the nation-state is not seen as either losing or attracting mobile researchers. Neither is the mobile researcher positioned as being either settled or on the move. Such either/or categorizations are seen as inadequate since the understandings of “home and away” have become increasingly complex (Teferra, 2005 230). While early stage researchers are often encouraged to engage in international mobility to increase career prospects, some authors (Ackers 2008; Lawson and Shibayama 2013) have argued that – in the context of the change of academic careers and trajectories – scientific mobility appears increasingly detached from its original objectives and can be better viewed as a compulsory career step, often with uncertain benefits on career progression (Cruz-Castro and Sanz-Menendez, 2010).


A proposal for an alternative framework

In order to make sense of the complex assemblage of political agendas, policy initiatives and personal experiences around scientific mobility, an alternative approach[i] can be developed following Cresswell’s work about the politics of mobility (2010). Cresswell defines mobility as the entanglement of three dimensions: movement, representation, and practice; movement is the fact of physical movement getting from one place to another; representation of movement is what gives it a shared meaning; and, finally, practice refers to the experienced and embodied practice of movement (ibid. p. 19).


The movement dimension – corresponding to the analysis of the fluxes of “movers” and their features (age, gender, nationality, stage of career, disciplines…) – has been widely investigated by the scientific literature on the topic. The practice dimension – corresponding to the analysis of the professional, social and political practices related with being a mobile researcher – although less often than the previous one, has also been a subject for investigation; to some extent, its combination with analyses about movement is at the basis of the policy approach of the push and pull factors. The representation dimension – exploring for example how mobility is discursively and materially constituted, what narratives have been constructed about mobility, how are mobilities represented in public discourse – appears instead largely neglected in the case of scientific mobility.


Cresswell (2010) reminds that just as there has been a multitude of efforts to measure and model mobility so there has been a plethora of representations of mobility: as adventure, as condemn, as education, as freedom, as modern, as threatening – each of them almost “naturally” associated to a different social phenomena involving some kind of moving.


Exploring representation and practices of scientific mobility

While I think that it would be particularly valuable to develop an analysis that reconnects and simultaneously addresses all three levels, I am particularly interested in exploring the intersection between representation and practice. The reason for this arises from the simple fact that, sometimes, mobile practices conform to the representations that surround them, while at other times there is a dissonance between representation and practice.


In an article about mobility practices of Italian early stage researchers (Carrozza and Minucci, forthcoming) we noted how the use of the term “mobility” was frequently associated to a universe of meanings different from those associated with the notion of “emigration”. On the one side, when asked about their opinion on scientific mobility in general, respondents recalled the rhetoric of the European research policies (defining mobility as a right, as the freedom to build a satisfying career by gathering professional and personal experiences in different workplaces and cultures, as a source of value for both the researcher and the European society as a whole); on the other, they often contradicted this framing when asked to talk about their personal experience, struggling to recognize the traits of what they understand to be “mobility” in their own situation.


Of course, these findings need to be contextualized by considering the well-known weaknesses of the Italian research system and labour market, where our respondents are trying (or tried in the past, before moving somewhere else) to build up an academic career. However, this is not the point. The point is – or might be – that both the idea and the lived experience of mobility, although largely dissonant in the case of our respondents, are both real: scientific mobility exists beyond the experience of academic migration.


In this respect, even if this requires a detour from the usual paths of scientific mobility’s research, connecting the two dimensions of representation and practice can further our understanding of the power of the European discourse on scientific mobility – as well as into its inherent contradictions – and offer us a way to explore mobility as one of the grand ideas of the Europe of Knowledge.


Chiara Carrozza is post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. She adopts interpretive approaches to policy analysis, and works on the co-evolution between knowledge production and governance production. She is interested in research practices and the meanings and values conveyed by policy discourses about research and technology. She has recently published in the Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, Higher Education Policy (in press), Critical Policy Studies (in press).


This post follows a presentation given at the panel The ‘big’ ideas in the Europe of Knowledge, at the ECPR General Conference held in Glasgow, 3-6 September 2014. I would like to thank the discussant Meng-Hsuan Chou, for the interesting and valuable comments on the presentation, as well as the other presenters and the audience of the panel.



Ackers, L. (2005) ‘Promoting scientific mobility and balanced growth in the European Research Area’, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 18(3): 301-17.


Ackers, L. (2008) ‘Internationalisation, mobility and metrics: A new form of indirect discrimination?’, Minerva 46(4): 411–435.


Cantwell, B. (2011) ‘Transnational Mobility and International Academic Employment: Gatekeeping in an Academic Competition Arena’, Minerva 49: 425–445.


Carrozza, C. and Minucci, S. (forthcoming), ‘Keep on movin’? Research mobility’s meanings for Italian early stage researchers’, Higher Education Policy.


Cresswell, T. (2010), ‘Towards a politics of mobility’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(1):17–31.


Cruz-Castro, L. and Sanz-Menendez, L. (2010) ‘Mobility vs. job stability: Assessing tenure and productivity outcomes’, Research Policy 39(1): 27-38.


Deloitte Consulting (2014), The Researchers’ Report 2014. Final Report, available at


Ivancheva, L. and Gourova, E. (2011) ‘Challenges for career and mobility of researchers in Europe’, Science and Public Policy 38(3): 185–98.


Lawson, C. and Shibayama, S., (2013), ‘Temporary Mobility. A Policy for Academic Career Development’, Working Paper 21/13, Cognetti de Martiis, Dept. of Economics and Statistics, or


Robertson, S.L. (2010) Critical response to Special Section: international academic mobility, published by the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS81JA, UK at:


Teferra, D. (2005) ‘Brain Circulation: Unparalleled Opportunities, Underlying Challenges, and Outmoded Presumptions’, Journal of Studies in International Education 9 (3): 229–250.

[i] This work in progress is being developed in collaboration with Tiago Santos Pereira at the Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra.