The mobility delusion

By Joern Fischer

Funding for researcher mobility programs, international conferences, pan-European research consortia, and trans-continental analyses: Our research lives have become global.

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Globalisation has had much to offer to researchers – insights, colleagues and friends we could not have had otherwise, exposure to systems far beyond our own experience, and ways of working that are so different from we knew from our own institutions. There are certainly a lot of interesting things to be learnt from living in a global world.

But this blog post wouldn’t be called “the mobility delusion” if I was here to talk about how wonderful it is to roam freely across the globe. Quite the opposite. Both in my professional and personal lives, I’m increasingly finding that mobility has high costs, but these are rarely acknowledged.

Ecology happens in the real world, in real places. I have deep respect for naturalists (and many members of “traditional” communities) who know their patch of the world inside out. Often, they truly understand the connections between human and non-human life, whether they are good at applying the scientific method or not. When I compare myself to these people, I find that my understanding about the world is at some abstract meta-level – there are a handful of places I understand a little bit (ecologically and socially) but none that I know inside out. It takes a lifetime of embeddedness in a place to truly build locally applicable wisdom. I know that the way I currently operate professionally, I will pay that price – I will probably never gain as complete an understanding about any place as many people who have chosen to simply stay put. I argue that the incentives to travel have gone too far: not only do they have environmental costs that are unlikely to be offset by the benefits of the insights obtained, but they also stop people who should be place-based scientists from actually focusing on any particular place in depth.

For our personal lives, the sum of everybody’s mobility (at least in academia) amounts to a bunch of uprooted individuals floating freely (but often lost) around the world. To grow you need roots, but many of us are no longer able to put our roots anywhere – chasing the next project, job, or international collaboration, we forget that rootedness in a local place can be a source of strength and inspiration.

Perhaps we can have both? The virtual world enables us to communicate with individuals in far places, without having to go there. I argue that “staying put” is an immensely important strategy for personal and professional growth; potentially just as important as “branching out”. To my mind, it is the balance of the two that leads to insight. If I’m right, this is quite different from what we’re being told by existing incentives: I’d argue for an “intermediate mobility hypothesis”, with intermediate levels of mobility being most conducive to personal and professional development.

We are in a globalized world, and nothing is going to change this anytime soon. This has advantages and disadvantages. The challenge is to make use of the advantages without being blind to the disadvantages.

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5 thoughts on “The mobility delusion

  1. I’m glad to read your post. I think the same and, now in Spain, where I came from, there is a enormous effort to promote the “mobility” and to cut the possibility of rooting for researchers. The science policy here prefer floating individuals, jumping from one place to another, suggesting that is the best way to achieve “excellence”. I suggest that “rooted mobility”, i.e., a professional or scientist that could move (and is conveniently motivated to move) along a wide collaborative net without frontiers, but rooted in a homeland, a place to come back after weeks, months or ever years working in other places, and where elaborate, write, think, teach and find inspiration and the support of long term relationship with friends and relatives.
    This seems logical to me, but here in Spain, politicians and administrators think wrongly that floating individuals always pursuing and fighting for new temporary contracts and places in a constant and rapid “job-between jobs-job-between jobs…” oscillation is a better way to wisdom and productivity. I think that could be a good way to achieve experience and perspective in young professionals, but is very disruptive and negative to senior or mid-senior researchers and professionals.

    • Thanks for the thoughts — glad it resonated with you, and that I’m not the only one who sees this trend! — J.

  2. Glad to see this as well. I see similar trends within entire fields. Take for instance systematics. In generations past, taxonomists spent a lifetime advancing knowledge about a single group. Over careers, these scientists compiled knowledge. Today, taxonomists have largely been replaced by molecular systematists who can have amateurs send samples from the field and produce phylogenetic trees without ever having encountered their study system. As these older experts retire and no one replaces them, all the knowledge they have gained will be lost and we as a scientific community, will be poorer for it. There is much to be gained by focusing on a small area and learning as much as you can about that one thing/place/group.

  3. Pingback: Recommended Reading | August 2013 | Cindy E Hauser

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