Researchers returning to Denmark are more entrepreneurial than immigrants and those who never leave

Breaking new ground 21. dec 2021 3 min Professor of Applied Econometrics Hans Christian Kongsted Written by Sybille Hildebrandt

Denmark should support researchers’ desire to carry out research abroad as much as possible. New research from Copenhagen Business School shows that such stays outside Denmark provide substantial returns to society in the form of more entrepreneurship and commercialisation.

Stays abroad greatly boost researchers’ penchant for entrepreneurship in Denmark. The researchers who return to Denmark after working abroad for several years (returnees) are 50% more likely to use their knowledge commercially than those who never leave Denmark (stayers). The returnees are also considerably more likely to start a company than researchers who immigrate to Denmark (immigrants).

These are the main results of a study led by Hans Christian Kongsted, Professor of Applied Econometrics at the Department of Strategy and Innovation, Copenhagen Business School. He has published an article about the study in Research Policy together with colleagues Valentina Tartari and Wolf-Hendrik Uhlbach.

“Returnees being the highly entrepreneurial seems to arise from their openness to new experience and superior skills at making contact and building networks and their new ideas and courage to realise them developed outside Denmark. Both factors are important for their academic entrepreneurship,” explains Hans Christian Kongsted, who says that recently graduated PhDs exemplify the type of researchers who leave Denmark as postdoctoral fellows to improve their chances of getting a permanent research position in Denmark.

The study did not clearly determine why this does not apply to the same extent to immigrants.

“Why immigrants have so much less penchant for entrepreneurship than returnees is unknown. Both have international experience. Most immigrants do not have an extensive network in Denmark and even have language difficulties since few know Danish when they arrive. This probably partly explains the difference, but we do not know for sure whether this is true,” says Hans Christian Kongsted.

Based on a questionnaire

The idea for the study stems from the fact that researchers in Denmark increasingly carry out research abroad to further their careers.

“Since the Danish state paid for their education, there is a cost–benefit question of the societal returns on their research outside Denmark, including those that transcend their actual research activities,” explains Hans Christian Kongsted.

The study tested a hypothesis that international mobility inspires researchers to increasingly commercialise their knowledge through entrepreneurship by sending a questionnaire survey to all researchers employed at universities in Denmark in 2017. The response rate was surprisingly high at 38%.

The study categorised the researchers as stayers, returnees and immigrants and linked their responses with the entrepreneurial results for each category while in Denmark. The questionnaire survey tested the hypothesis that mobile researchers more often have new experiences and therefore also bring them home – with new knowledge that can be more easily implemented.

“The most interesting group is the surprisingly large number of returnees. A common theory is that innovation arises when researchers combine new and old ideas,” says Hans Christian Kongsted.

“The study confirmed our hypothesis since it showed that research abroad strengthens researchers’ ability to recombine ideas. The longer the stay lasted, the better the results, giving researchers the opportunity to absorb new ideas,” he explains.

Networks and inspiration

However, the ability to cultivate ideas from research communities outside Denmark is only one factor that determines academic entrepreneurship. Another factor is access to relevant networks – and the three categories of researchers differ greatly. Immigrants have extensive international experience but no network in Denmark. Stayers retain a good intact network in Denmark but have no international experience. Returnees obtain substantial international experience, the value of which increases in accordance with the foreign university’s international position. Nevertheless, stays abroad reduce researchers’ networks in accordance with how long they are away.

Overall, the immigrants and the returnees obtain more new experiences than stayers that they can implement in companies, and their involvement with industry seems not very strongly associated with having an extroverted personality.

“The returnees seem to perform best overall. They achieve the greatest returns in the form of the most involvement in entrepreneurship and commercialisation. This makes good sense, since they both get new impulses from outside Denmark and also have the best opportunities for commercial networking because of their existing base in Denmark. We found quite clear evidence that international experience is very important for researchers embarking on a commercialisation process,” says Hans Christian Kongsted, adding that he hopes that the results can open politicians’ eyes to what is required to optimise the future interaction between society and researchers, whether they are immigrants or are carrying out research outside Denmark and are therefore potential returnees.

“The Independent Research Fund Denmark has support programmes that require international orientation. Further, Denmark has a scheme for reducing income taxes for immigrant researchers, aiming to attract them. Taking full advantage of these schemes requires examining the obstacles immigrant university researchers face in promoting their ideas. As it looks today, neither researchers nor society get enough value for money,” concludes Hans Christian Kongsted.

Beyond scientific excellence: international mobility and the entrepreneurial activities of academic scientists” has been published in Research Policy. In 2016, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a grant to Hans Christian Kongstedfor the project Investments, Incentives and the Impact of Danish Research (Triple-I-Research).

Hans Christian Kongsted is a Professor of Applied Econometrics at the Department of Strategy and Innovation, Copenhagen Business School. His research...

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