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For scientists, mobility means impact

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
October 16, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 41

The first week of October came and went and with it went the Nobels. That week is exciting and very busy for C&EN given the level of activity the Nobel Prizes generate on the web, but it means several early mornings for those of us who are not in European time zones.

Something that surprised me this year is that in all the discussions I had been party to, in all the articles I had read, and in all the social media postings I had seen predicting who or what area of chemistry would be recognized, not a single time did I see any mention of cryo-electron microscopy as a potential winner. That does not mean the technique and its discoverers do not deserve the prize: C&EN in 2015 published an in-depth feature on cryo-electron microscopy and the dramatic impact it has had on structural biology. Although it wasn’t on most chemistry Nobel watchers’ short lists, it clearly was on the Nobel selection committee’s.

The other thing I noticed this year is that there seemed to be greater consensus than usual around who should win it. If there were a popular vote, John Goodenough and his lithium-ion batteries would have definitely gotten it. It would have been far from a sympathy vote or an award for a lifetime of achievements, which as we know the Nobels do not recognize. At 95, he’s active, doing influential work, and publishing in the top journals.

One thing I’ve always admired about Nobel laureates is their mobility. Jacobus van’t Hoff, the first winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for example, was born in the Netherlands but worked and died in what is now Germany. Ernest Rutherford was born in New Zealand and moved to England. Marie Curie moved from Poland to France. Albert Einstein was born in Germany but ended his days in the U.S. More recently, Ahmed Zewail transferred from Egypt to the U.S., and Fraser Stoddart from Scotland to the U.S.

Mobility is the theme of a couple of studies that were published in Nature during Nobel week that I’d like to bring to your attention. The first study, led by Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University, Bloomington, looks at how researchers’ mobility affects the impact of their research. To assess this, Sugimoto and collaborators analyzed the records of 14 million papers from about 16 million people who published between 2008 and 2015. Of those researchers, about 4% were classified as mobile—that is, they had more than one affiliation during that period.

Caroline S. Wagner of Ohio State University and Koen Jonkers of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that when it comes to citations, mobility pays: On average, mobile scientists have about 40% higher citation rates than nonmobile ones. In terms of the different regions, mobile North Americans receive an 11% boost in citations over their nonmobile colleagues. And the effect is amplified with Eastern European scientists, for example, for whom the gap between mobile and nonmobile scientists is 173%.

The second study looked for relationships between a country’s spending on R&D, the flow of scientists in and out of that country, and the quality of its output, which was measured by the number of citations received.

The conclusion that these studies lead us to is that limiting the circulation of scholars will damage the scientific ecosystem since researchers who change country produce more influential work. If Nobel laureates are anything to go by, I’d say that statement rings true.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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