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Funding Programmes and Initiatives for Internationally Mobile Postdocs


Hans-Dieter Daniel, Jana Bobokova and Rüdiger Mutz

Governance & Management

Funding Programmes and Initiatives for Internationally Mobile Postdocs

Perceived Impacts on Individuals, Institutions and Society. An exploratory study.

Internationalization has been presented as a universal good, as if to create a cross-border, cross-cultural or global connection is to automatically trigger a flow of all-around benefits (…). The claim is made often enough about benefits to the common good (…) but the claim has mostly been couched in very general terms (Marginson 2019). The internationalization of research is no longer a self-evident principle. Purpose and goals need to be defined and explained more than ever before (Deutscher Bundestag/Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany 2017). In order to explore the magnitude of impacts at a multitude of levels, seven programmes for funding of postdoctoral research stays abroad offered by two research funding organisations in Germany, namely the Volkswagen Foundation (VWS) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) were selected.
Wissenschaftsmanagement - Governance & Management

The selected initiatives represent three programme modes, namely the incoming, the outgoing and the capacity-building mode. The incoming fellows are those that come to Germany from abroad in order to conduct a research stay at a German university or a non-university research institution. The outgoing fellows are those that come from a university or a non-university research institution in Germany and go for a research stay abroad. The capacity-building fellows are either those that come from a developing country, emerging economy or a transition state in order to conduct a research stay at a German university or a non-university research institution, or in the case of the Volkswagen Foundation, those that are based in Sub-Saharan Africa and receive funding to conduct research in their home country or region.

The study focuses on international long-term physical mobility, that is mobility of at least six months. The time frame of the study encompasses the VWS fellows who finished their fellowships between 2008 and 2018 and the AvH alumnae and alumni who finished their initial funding between 2013 and 2017.

Data and methods

Intervention logics: In order to explore the magnitude of impacts at a multitude of levels, a systematic approach was selected. The concept of intervention logics was used to embrace the manifoldness of objectives, purposes and aims of the funding programmes. The reconstruction of systematically organised models graphically illustrating how intended impacts were supposed to materialise, was extremely conducive to mapping and structuring of the variety of pursued aims, and especially to organising them in a logical sequence.

Literature research: An extensive literature research was conducted, encompassing both evaluation reports and academic literature. Subsequently, the intervention logics and results from the retrieved literature were utilised when designing the surveys.

Surveys: Two-stage online surveys of former fellows/alumnae and alumni, and a one-stage online survey of hosts of former incoming fellows were conducted using the Qualtrics software. Altogether, almost 3,000 former fellows and almost 2,000 hosts were invited to participate in the surveys. In the first round of the survey of former fellows, open-ended questions were asked about perceived effects at the various levels. Based on the analysis of answers, lists with “impact items” were drawn up at each of the different levels (19 to 43 items) and offered in the second round of the surveys, both to former fellows and hosts. Apart from impacts, the survey aimed at tracing the career development of the former fellows, by determining the situation at the application stage, immediately after the funding and at the time of data collection, utilising the European Union’s framework for research careers. The design and the survey implementation strategy had both the aim to achieve high response rates.
In detail, the achieved response rates of 65 to 89 per cent for VWS and 46 to 68 per cent for AvH former fellows and 42 per cent for AvH hosts can be considered above-average. Moreover, the results from the non-response bias analysis show that overall, the distortions were so small that no adjustment of the data with weights was necessary.

Bibliometric analysis: Finally, a bibliometric analysis, that is a mapping of citing authors’ institutional affiliations, was conducted for two former fellows, in order to demonstrate how the development of former fellows’ international visibility over time could be investigated (for cost reasons, the bibliometric analysis could only be carried out for a few fellows as examples). The analysis was based on the publication lists available at the time of application that were provided by the foundations and on the publications of the former fellows identified by the bibliographic data base Scopus.


General results: Firstly, looking at the respective levels of analysis, the surveys showed that indeed, the individual level is where most impacts were perceived, that is where the proportion of impacts selected from our list is the highest and where the proportion of former fellows who reported a specific impact is highest as well. Secondly, the study explored potential negative impacts as well (for example finding a job after the end of the fellowship): however, they were (among) the least often mentioned impacts reported by the former fellows and hosts at all levels. Thirdly, some impact items were reported only seldom or not at all by the fellows. They have either socio-economic (for example establishing a start-up or spin-off company, improved products or processes) or socio-political (influence on national policy-making, founding of an NGO, contributions to science policy discussions) character.


This study explored the range of potential impacts of funded long-term research stays perceived by internationally mobile postdocs and their hosts at various levels as broadly as possible, and by using multiple methods. However, if the question was to what extent the perceived impacts were achieved and caused by the funding programmes, other methods would need to be applied. One could use, for example, quasi-experiments (for example within-group designs, compare Kassab/Mutz/Daniel 2020) and modern data technology (for example propensity score matching, compare Mutz/Wolbring/Daniel 2017) could be used to establish a causal relationship between funding and observed impacts.

This work was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation. The article also appears in the Proceedings of the “26th International Conference of Science and Technology Indicators” STI 2022, Sept. 7-9, 2022, in Granada, Spain.

  • The complete article is available in the ► online store of Lemmens Medien. Subscribers to the journal Wissenschaftsmanagement can download the entire article free of charge from their accounts.

Hans-Dieter Daniel is Professor for Quantitative Research on Higher Education, Departement of Psychology, University of Zurich.

Jana Bobokova is Research associate at the Professorship for Quantitative Research on Higher Education, Department of Psychology, University of Zurich.

Rüdiger Mutz is Senior Researcher at the Compe¬tence Center for Higher Educa¬tion and Science Studies, CHESS, University of Zurich in the field of Quantitative Science Research.