When researchers build careers across the traditional boundaries of academia and industry – so called ‘intersectoral mobility’ – the benefits can be significant (Lundvall, 2007).

By moving between academia and different industries, they bring new and diverse expertise, skills and ideas to the private sector and academia respectively. High researcher mobility is likely to foster new knowledge creation and spillover benefits for the economy.  This accelerates the development of new production processes, products and services (Apanasovich, 2014), which drive innovation and stimulate economic growth. This, therefore, turns them into the most sought-after human capital resources (Wadhwa et al., 2009) amongst developed and developing countries. 

Capturing the flow of knowledge can be a complex issue due to variations in data caused by differences in mobility definitions, data sources, and country, sector, and individual researcher. Collecting accurate and meaningful insights on this topic is notoriously challenging. 

Different countries measure intersectoral mobility of researchers in different ways. Some use surveys of researchers and scientists about motivations and experiences when engaging in non-university sectors (Gulbrandsen and Thune, 2017). Labour force statistics can also track the number of individuals who move from one sector of the economy to another, while others use research founding data or patent data to track the transfer of resources and knowledge between different parts of the economy. More recently, researchers have used experimental approaches using online curricula (Cañibano et al., 2011), Google scholar, ORCID, LinkedIn, etc. (Sixto-Costoya et al., 2021).  

Mobility in the UK 

In the UK, a good starting point to understand trends and patterns of staff movement in the higher education sector is provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)Its data on staff can provide important insights into staff movement within the UK higher education sector. For example, data on staff inflow and outflow can be used to understand the extent to which universities attract and retain staff, and to provide information on the factors that influence staff mobility. 

Figures 1 and 2 provide a snapshot of the inflow and outflow of researchers to and from UK universities, as well as the rate of mobility. The latest statistics show a 41% increase in the number of academics who moved to academia (from 5,600 to 7,910) and a 45% growth in the number of individuals who transitioned to industry (from 1,490 to 2,160). It is worth noting that the mobility between academia and industry experienced ups and downs from the start of, and throughout, the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2018/19 to 2019/20, the number of individuals moving from academia to industry decreased by 9% (from 1,925 to 1,750), while the number of individuals moving to academia increased by 8% (from 5,885 to 6,350). 

Figure 2 below shows that the private sector outflow mobility rate hovers at around 17%, whereas the private sector inflow mobility rate is slightly lower at around 24%. Overall, the inflow and outflow rates have increased in the last data point (2021/22).  

What does this mean for mobility?

Upon analysing the long-term data, it becomes evident that there has been a significant surge in researchers transitioning from academia to the private sector. This spike is much steeper than the nominal uptick in inflow movements. From a policy perspective, having more academics working in industry could prove advantageous as it enables companies to tap into cutting-edge knowledge. However, it is important to note that there could be a multitude of factors driving this trend, and these may not be easily captured by the data at hand. For instance, are these moves involuntary? For example, could this reflect earlier career researchers whose fixed term contracts have come to end? Are the departing individuals moving to roles in which they are highly innovative and actively engaged in R&D, or to roles in which their research background and expertise is not utilised? To what extent is this shift a consequence of the pandemic and the increased cost of living, with individuals seeking different types of careers or higher salaries?

Going ahead

While the data collected by HESA on inward and outward mobility provides valuable insights into the trends and patterns of mobility in UK higher education, there are also limitations and weaknesses that should be considered. Firstly, lack of granularity. HESA’s data on inward and outward staff mobility provides only high-level information on the number and characteristics of staff who are involved in mobility. It does not provide detailed information on the specific reasons for mobility, the quality of the mobility experience, the sectors involved, or the outcomes and impact of mobility. Secondly, lack of context. HESA’s data on mobility does not provide qualitative information on the context and drivers of mobility. For example, it may not capture the personal, social, and cultural factors that influence staff decisions to participate in mobility, or the institutional and policy factors that facilitate or hinder mobility.

To advance the evidence, we launched a new Taskforce earlier this month – bringing together senior university and industry leaders to steer an ambitious project to understand mobility in the UK and to make recommendations on how to drive greater impact through mobility over the coming decades.

Between now and the summer, NCUB will produce qualitative and quantitative evidence to investigate the level of sectoral mobility among researchers, gather empirical evidence to illustrate its advantages, identify the barriers that hinder it, and the best practices to promote it.

If you would like to contribute to this important work, please get in touch with us at policy@ncub.co.uk.

More to come. Watch this space!