Researchers who temporarily work in other countries and then return to their country of academic origin usually bring back additional skills, newly established collaborative ties and complementary expertise. Germany has launched several programs aimed at maintaining and strengthening ties with previously German-affiliated researchers to facilitate their return to Germany and their re-integration into the German science system. Xinyi Zhao (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, University of Oxford), Samin Aref (University of Toronto), Emilio Zagheni (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) and Guy Stecklov (University of British Columbia) analysed the migration rates of internationally mobile researchers returning to Germany, tracking location data obtained from institutional affiliations identified from millions of Scopus publications. Their findings were recently published in Scientometrics.
They focused on how return migration patterns of German-affiliated researchers varied by gender, years of academic experience, discipline, destination country and academic collaboration ties maintained with Germany-based scholars while abroad. They found that female researchers who leave Germany are less likely than male researchers to return. For example, among researchers who started publishing between 1998 and 2001 and left Germany as junior scientists, 28% of men returned to Germany within 5 years, compared to only 22% of women. In almost all disciplines, the subgroups who returned to Germany were more male-dominated than the subgroups who left Germany. This could further exacerbate the gender imbalance in the German science system.
Returning to Germany is associated with a considerably longer academic life for both female and male researchers, compared to those who never migrated out of Germany. Specifically, in the subgroup of researchers without international academic migration, only 23.15% males and 14.44% females were observed to remain active in science for 14 years or more. The figures for male returnees and female returnees increased to 64.57% and 51.13%, respectively, indicating over half of returnee researchers tended to enter their more senior career stages. Nevertheless, there were still considerable gender differences in the length of returnees’ academic careers.
Faced with the potential challenge of talent loss, maintaining collaboration with German-affiliated researchers when they are abroad has shown to have a moderate positive association with their return to Germany. Looking at return rates by country, the researchers who had moved from Germany to countries with high levels of spending in research and development (such as Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Australia) were less likely to return to Germany. Obtaining insights into researchers who have left Germany, including their age, gender and characteristics that could influence their potential return, is a key step towards understanding scholarly migration as a concept more nuanced than a one-off relocation event.
The study was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) with funds from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.