Talent mobility – Win-win or a double-edged sword?

Dear reader, This is my first blog post as Science and innovation counselor at the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C. My job – since three weeks – is to promote Sweden-U.S. collaboration in the areas of science, innovation and higher...

Dear reader,

This is my first blog post as Science and innovation counselor at the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C. My job – since three weeks – is to promote Sweden-U.S. collaboration in the areas of science, innovation and higher education.

The aim of this blog is to give you a glimpse of what is going on in the six countries where Sweden has Offices of science and innovation – where my responsibility is the United States – and thereby spur further activities that increase collaboration between Sweden and the respective country.

Increased talent mobility is an aim for science and innovation policy in many countries, including Sweden and the U.S. Mobility has ground to a halt during Covid-19, but one-and-a-half year into the pandemic we need to look ahead and plan for the future.

What is talent mobility?

In my mind, the ideal situation for facilitating sustained collaboration between universities would be to have a two-way turn-and-return mobility on all academic levels, from under-graduate students to professors, meaning an exchange of talent both ways and that students that have studied abroad (or visiting professors) returns after their dissertation (or visit).

So, for me that is new on the job, a relevant question may be: How are Sweden and the U.S doing with respect to talent mobility? Is there a mutual competence exchange between our countries? What is working well, and what could be improved?

What do we know?

There are plenty of studies of talent mobility, but on my second day on the job I got hold of a recent one on doctorate students by the U.S. National Center of Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) at the National Science Foundation. The NCSES finds that about one-third of Science and Engineering (S&E) doctorate degrees awarded by U.S. institutions during 2006-2015 were earned by temporary visa holders.[1] That is not surprising, as the fraction of non-Swedish citizens among doctorate students at Swedish universities is larger than 45 percent.[2]  (As many as 1292 of the 2838 new PhDs examined from Swedish universities in 2017 had another nationality than Swedish.[3])

What did strike me though, is that most (71 percent) of the non-US citizen S&E doctorate recipients remained in the U.S. for employment after graduation, and as many as 30 percent had become U.S. citizens or permanent residents 2017.[4] Hence, talent mobility to the U.S. seem to be a one-way track, where many choose not to return to their countries of origin.

China and India were the two largest source countries for U.S.-trained S&E doctorate holders with temporary visas at graduation, and S&E doctorate holders from these two countries had some of the highest rates of those who stayed in the U.S. post-graduation, a staggering 90 percent in the case of Chinese citizens and 50 percent for Indian citizens.[5] What does this mean for the universities in China and India? Does is spur cooperation between China/India and the U.S., or is it problematic that mobility is one-way?

Diagram showing the number of early career S&T doctorate holders with temporary visas at graduation (2006–15) and stay rates, by country of origin: 2017
Diagram: Number of early career S&T doctorate holders with temporary visas at graduation (2006–15) and stay rates, by country of origin: 2017 (Data source: NCSES)

The Swedish situation

Swedish doctorate students are not mentioned in the NCSES study. The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) has excellent data on student mobility between Sweden and the U.S.,[6] but their data does not single out doctorate students.

Data from the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) shows that 146 out of the 2840 doctorate students that finalized their PhD studies at a Swedish university in 2017 had conducted part of their PhD work in the U.S.[7] However, this data is not comparable with the NCSES data, since the 146 individuals got their PhD from a Swedish university in 2017 after having conducted part of their doctorate studies in the U.S.

So how many Swedish citizens get their doctorate in the U.S.? And how many of them return to Sweden with new knowledge, competence and contacts? Do you know? Or are you one of them? In that case, please contact me (contact information in “The writers” section) and tell me about your experience!

Maria Brogren, Washington DC


[1] Where Are They Now? Most Early Career U.S.-Trained S&E Doctorate Recipients with Temporary Visas at Graduation Stay and Work in the United States after Graduation | NSF – National Science Foundation

[2] Higher education institutions in Sweden – 2020 status report – Swedish Higher Education Authority (uka.se)

[3] Filtrering (uka.se)

[4] Where Are They Now? | NSF – National Science Foundation

[5] Where Are They Now? | NSF – National Science Foundation

[6] STINT Country Report USA 2021

[7] Statistisk analys: Internationell mobilitet (uka.se)