In ‘normal’ times, Mike McCulloch has to scour the globe to find a person able and willing to join his laboratory. “My science is quite controversial, so I don’t get many applications for posts,” he says.
But these are not normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the mobility of scientists, as evidenced by McCulloch’s recent job advertisement, posted in April on Twitter. Usually, McCulloch needs to look high and low for people able and willing to help him with his controversial work at the University of Plymouth, UK. His aim is to harness relativity to pull rockets through space without the need for backwards thrust — an approach with its fair share of detractors. But pandemic-related border restrictions meant that he needed to limit his search to the United Kingdom. Those restrictions have now eased a little, but McCulloch is unsure about what that means for his search. “It’s quite important for me to have a wide range of countries to recruit from,” he says.
His last search for a postdoc turned up a single qualified and available researcher, who was from Spain. “I’ll try to fill the post one way or another,” he says. The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union is widely expected to complicate research mobility, particularly if junior scientists in Europe foresee bureaucratic tangles associated with having to move, but McCulloch thinks pandemic-related restrictions will be a bigger problem.
More than a year after the first lockdowns and border closings, scientists around the world are still grappling with the pandemic’s impacts on mobility. Researchers are navigating a world where the rules — and the challenges — are seemingly in constant flux. Whether they are stuck far from home, separated from team members or forced to rethink their approach to recruitment, they’re trying to keep their science moving forwards (see ‘Push on through’).
Most scientists managed to stay productive in the first year of the pandemic, but the relative lack of mobility for the global scientific enterprise will have long-lasting impacts that could transform research and collaboration, warns Giorgio Marinoni. Marinoni is the manager of higher education and internationalization at the International Association of Universities (IAU), a non-governmental organization based in Paris that promotes global cooperation in higher education. He worries that disruptions in travel could stifle the careers of junior scientists. “For a young researcher, mobility is part of the career,” he says. “We might be heading for a future where there isn’t such a global research community.”
The pandemic threatens to undo much progress towards scientific globalization, agrees IAU secretary-general Hilligje van’t Land. Researchers from economically disadvantaged countries will bear most of the brunt, she says. “There’s no way for them to travel, and they may not have a vaccine for a while depending on where they are from.” And that will not only limit their own opportunities, it will also deprive the system of their