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