The study provides an in-depth analysis of MSCA mobility flows and recommendations for a more balanced movement of researchers and talent (“brain circulation”) in the European Research Area.

The European Commission carried out a study to understand the structure and determinants of researchers’ mobility and how to make mobility flows across countries more balanced.

The study

  • analyses in depth geographical and inter-sectoral mobility patterns under the previous Framework Programme Horizon 2020
  • investigates to what extent the MSCA help retain European talents, attract foreign researchers to Europe and European researchers back to Europe
  • provides policy recommendations for a more balanced brain circulation in the European Research Area

Main findings

Researcher inflows

Most MSCA researchers move to a handful of countries. The United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands hosted almost 60% of all incoming long-term MSCA researchers under Horizon 2020.

There are also regional concentrations: only 12 regions hosted 30% of long-term MSCA fellows. All these regions are in so-called “non-widening” countries, which already perform well in research and innovation, and include major European cities such as Barcelona and Paris.

However, Research and Innovation Staff Exchanges (RISE, now Staff Exchanges) successfully promote mobility between “widening countries” and non-widening countries and have a general balancing effect on mobility flows.

Impact and attraction of the MSCA

The study compares MSCA mobility to the general researcher mobility flows (based on the MORE4 study). It shows that mobility flows under the MSCA largely mirror the overall researcher mobility flows. This suggests that the MSCA do not strongly contribute to overall mobility trends and imbalances, but merely reflect them.

The programme is effective at attracting and retaining European talents. Looking at Individual Fellowships (now Postdoctoral Fellowships), Innovative Training Networks (now Doctoral Networks) and COFUND, the EU27 received 74.6% of all researchers, with the United Kingdom accounting for a further 17.4%. Over 90% of third-country nationals went to the EU27 and the United Kingdom.

The MSCA contribute to attracting European researchers back to Europe. Of all the researchers who lived outside the EU27 and the United Kingdom, 79% returned to the EU for their MSCA fellowship.

The MSCA strongly support the return mobility of researchers, especially to widening countries. Returning researchers account for 44% of Individual Fellowships researchers going to widening Member States and 91% of Individual Fellowships recipients going to widening associated countries.

Main drivers of researchers’ mobility

The main individual determinants of researchers’ mobility are the

  • opportunity to work with leading scientists
  • quality of research infrastructure
  • training offered

Researchers also point to other attractions including

  • social and cultural conditions
  • good career opportunities
  • the level of remuneration
  • public infrastructure

However, researchers are most influenced by the overall quality of national and regional R&I systems. MSCA fellows prefer countries with

  • stronger research systems
  • better research infrastructures
  • higher public expenditure on research and development
  • excellent universities

Success of Widening/ERA Fellowships

The Widening Fellowships (now ERA Fellowships), an action to enable excellent researchers not funded through the MSCA to undertake an individual fellowship in a widening country, were highly successful.

The Widening Fellowships

  • led to a 56% increase in the number of grants to widening countries
  • contributed to limiting brain drain, particularly for widening Member States, bringing down the researcher deficit from 113 to 24
  • helped widening countries attract back experienced researchers: 35% of widening fellows were returning to their countries of origin
  • contributed to retaining talent: almost 60% of widening fellows were planning to stay, or have stayed, in the host country after their fellowship

Overall, they significantly increased the number of incoming researchers to widening countries and helped widening countries improve their mobility flows and become more attractive.


One of the objectives of the study was to explore the possibility to reintroduce return grants under the MSCA. Based on the above findings, the study does not recommend this. Instead, it provides recommendations to enhance the quality and attractiveness of the less advanced research and innovation systems and their capacity to attract and retain researchers.

EU Member States (and especially widening countries) should take the lead in implementing national reforms that enhance the conditions to attract excellent researchers.

The European Commission should

  • steer policy and funding tools at its disposal more prominently to support reforms of research and innovation systems at national and regional level
  • consider expanding funding for the ERA Fellowships, since the Widening Fellowships pilot showed it can contribute to more balanced flows of researchers to and from widening countries
  • consider implementing a “hop on” facility for MSCA Staff Exchanges, allowing organisations from widening countries to join already established successful consortia

Find out more

Download the full final report and executive summary of the study

Read also the policy briefs recently published by the European Commission on knowledge ecosystems in the new European Research Area

Source: European Commission I Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (