Nauka emigrantka/science on the move

Nauka Emigrantka/Science on the Move

We’ve just had our last Friday Forum of the year, on The Ages of Science. Naturally this milestone made me reflect on the series as a whole, and particularly on the first event, held in February.

Our subject was Nauka Emigrantka, translated from the Polish as ‘Science on the Move’. The Polish motif comes from a Warsaw-based colleague of mine, Urszula Kaczorowska. Urszula is a long-time visitor and teacher with Imperial’s Science Communication Unit and is a science journalist at the Polish Press Agency.

Some years ago Urszula became interested in the issue of ‘migrant science’. What is it like, travelling for science? Scientists often uproot themselves to go and pursue their craft in another country. Science is always international, global. What could be more ordinary, then, in moving somewhere that offers the right opportunity? But what are the difficulties in ‘being global’, in migrating for your science? Being a journalist, Urszula sensed a good story.

In its publicity material Imperial describes itself as ‘the United Kingdon’s most international university’. UCL in turn calls itself ‘the global university’. But ‘being international’ can’t be an undiluted good. Mixed in must be joy, opportunity, peril and heart-ache.

These are big themes for the life scientific, and rather under-explored. I was interested too in the philosophical angle. It is a myth of science that it has a method, maybe one method. In that case surely science is the same everywhere. You can see the point: DNA is a double helix, whether you are in Moscow or in Malibu. But do the undoubted facts of science flatten out all difference, all geography, all sociology? Is science more a place of nowhere, rather than somewhere? It seems unlikely.

The job of the Friday Forum is to explore in congenial fashion such issues. And so we gathered one Friday lunchtime, to take stock of the matter. Naturally, three travellers took charge. Urszula herself chaired the session, and her interviewees were two perambulatory scientists, one from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the other based at Imperial but trained in India.

Dr Szymon Drobniak is an evolutionary biologist, especially interested in bird colouration. Like a migrant bird himself, he moves rather regularly between Poland, Australia and Sweden, spending good patches of time in each. Dr Dhanya Radhakrishnan works in Imperial’s Form and Function lab, and gained her PhD in India in 2021.

Urszula carefully probed our speakers’ motives for their migration, and way they feel about their radical geographical extension. Symon and Dhanya’s perspectives of course were multiple, and far from straightforward. Part of the challenge is in adapting to a new culture: Syzmon was by turns amusing and thought-provoking in comparing the Scandinavian mind-set with that of the Australian. For Dhanya, the remarkable change in opportunity and in the dynamics of research culture made Imperial almost the natural place to be. But not quite natural. She is far from home, from parents and friends, and time is passing.

It is a rule of the Friday Forums that, of the short hour available, half is given to the panel, half to the audience and a question-and-answer session. Ideas, thoughtful and challenging, flowed quickly. We discussed how, for those who have come to the UK from LMICs, the phrase ‘brain-drain’ is too much of a simplification. We talked about how migratory science, as a phenomenon, intersects in complex ways with other features of science that vary nationally. You can’t talk about migrant science without considering the gender gap, and the professional status of women. The rigidities of hierarchy, and how they shift across societies, will impact on a person’s choices when it comes to workplace. And then there is the issue of dominance of English as the lingua franca of science, and how this influences both the native, and the non-native speaker of English.

As ever, our Friday Forum produced no answers. As ever, the simple act of assembling in person, to discuss as a group some contextual issue of science, seemed both profound and easy. Led by Urszula, and with Szymon and Dhanya pondering the issues, no one wanted the discussion to end. As the next class filed into our room, and we made our exit, we soon assembled again down the stairs, in the Medical School café, to continue the discussion. Szymon I noticed, settled there too, with his enormous suitcase, all ready for Heathrow, and Australia, and another lap of his travels.

With thanks to:

Dr Szymon Drobniak, The Jagiellonian University, Krakow
Dr Dhanya Radhakrishan, Department of Bioengineering, Imperial College London
Urszula Kaczorowska, Polish Press Agency, Warsaw