[Focus Article] Researcher Mobility in the Western Balkans – Raising Awareness in the Region

For this month’s edition of the Western Balkans Info Hub Newsletter, POLICY ANSWERS approached Dr. Ornela Bardhi for an interview. Originally from Albania, she has rich mobility experience and she was chair of the Western Balkans Chapter of the Marie Curie Alumni Association between 2021 and 2023 – and is currently advisor to the Chapter’s Board. Ornela has been an MSCA Ph.D. fellow working on applied AI in medicine in various countries, and the founder and co-founder of two startups in Sweden and Finland, respectively. Currently, she is senior researcher and data scientist at the Success Clinic (SC) Oy in Finland where she transforms real-world data into real-world evidence for the Nordic countries. Before joining SC, she was a scientific advisor to the Minister of Health and Social Protection of Albania. She generally loves challenges and recently started doing standup comedy, bringing science into the standup comedy scene of Helsinki.

POLICY ANSWERS: Can you tell us about your mobility experience so far? How did mobility support you in your career?

Ornela Bardhi: The first time I moved to a new country was during my bachelor’s degree for an Erasmus exchange. Studying in a new environment made me see things from a different perspective. I still see these exchange programmes as very valuable. That is why I pursued an Erasmus Master’s degree and continued with the MSCA PhD fellowship. I have lived in nine different countries. I have experienced nine different cultures, and I learned four new languages (from beginner to intermediate level). I have worked with students and with well-established researchers. I worked at multiple universities, one hospital, and a private company. I started two start-ups and tried to solve real-world issues using real-world data for cancer patients. I joined an international association that works with researchers from around the world, to improve researchers’ lives in the EU and abroad. I have been invited to panel discussions as a field expert or to share my career experience. I am sure I would have worked just as hard, and my career would have been successful if I had stayed in Albania, but with the help of these mobilities, I have a successful career abroad as well. It is not only about opportunities you can find outside the Western Balkans region but about being exposed to different opinions, lived experiences, ideas, etc., that help you see the world differently. I encourage everyone, from any country, to live abroad at least once. It not only fosters professional growth by introducing you to potential co-founders, employers, and collaborators, but, most importantly, you grow personally. You become more open to taking on new and challenging projects or even experimenting with new career paths.

POLICY ANSWERS: Do you have recommendations for young researchers in the Western Balkans setting out for their journey?

Ornela Bardhi: I feel that we from the Western Balkans are very individualistic people. I think the past communist history has played a role, or maybe we were always like this, although I am not an expert in this area and leave it to others for in-depth study. We should be more open to working with each other. Help each other. If you know of a scholarship or grant, share it with everyone. The more people know about it, the better. The more you work with other people, the better the outcomes. Especially for researchers, you get published in high-impact journals, and your work will be recognized by many.

I would recommend young researchers to organise monthly meetings together, maybe something similar to PubHD or Pint of Science, and discuss their research with one another. This way they might refine their initial idea for an article they are writing, they will find a new collaborator or new ideas will come out of the discussions, and most importantly support one another during this journey. Departments in universities should have, at least, biweekly meetings where everyone, including well-established professors, talks for five minutes about their current research projects and the challenges they are encountering. This will encourage younger researchers to seek help when they are stuck.

Another recommendation is to join international projects, e.g. COST Action, Erasmus +, Horizon Europe, etc. Maintain the connections you form in these projects, organise short research stays, and even initiate new research projects with them. Especially after participating in capacity building activities, I recommend to immediately move the discussions to actionable research projects.

Younger researchers usually include PhD candidates and postdocs who are teaching or assisting in teaching. They should absolutely involve master students in their research where possible, and why not even some bachelor’s students. This way the researcher trains the younger generation how to conduct proper research, learns how to delegate and manage people – which are valuable skills for career progression, and has more time for new projects or other administrative work they sometimes need to do. The student gains new skills, sees academia as another career path, and can include this time as work experience in their CV. On the other side, the university profits by participating in more projects than before has more research outputs such as published articles, and can select new academic staff from this pool of students that already have the skills. It is a win-win-win situation.

POLICY ANSWERS: Based on your experience, how could universities and NCPs in the Western Balkans promote MSCA even better to increase participation and success rates?

Ornela Bardhi: Universities should offer training and assistance to their researchers on how to write research proposals of a high standard. Ideally, each university should have a unit or office focused on EU and other grants and proposal writing. Many universities abroad have such facilities which are there for researchers when needed. Training should include administrative staff to increase understanding of how to deal with EU grants, how to manage them, how they work, and especially how the financial side of the project works. The staff is often unaware that funds not spent directly on the project and justified by invoices must be returned. There have been cases where the administrative staff have not approved certain expenses that are justified by the project, with the hope that this money can be used for something else later. It is important to know that the project grant finances only the said project and cannot be used for anything else.

Universities should promote MSCA grants among their academic staff and students. They should not wait for NCPs to promote them if they want to be competitive and attract the best talents.

Another aspect is that every university should have an international office. It will not take long for more internationals to move into the region for research or even study. The university should have adequate information in English for them and help them in any way possible, for example dealing with attracting international talents, dual PhD degrees, visas, employment-related issues, etc. Last but not least, universities should make sure their master’s diplomas are recognised abroad.

NCPs have a key role as they serve as the link between any European institution in the local governments, stakeholders and institutions. They are the ones who know the ins and outs of the programme and know all the local stakeholders involved in it. It should be their job to help researchers, especially the incoming ones who might require assistance – starting with the type of visa they will need to apply to move into the country.

One of my further recommendations is that promotional events should be targeted. Different types of programmes require different participants. If you are promoting MSCA PhD and Postdoctoral grants, the primary target should be master students and PhD candidates. If you are promoting staff exchange and consortium building, the primary targets are postdoctoral researchers and above.

Moreover, I would recommend that both universities and NCPs should be in contact with the Marie Curie Alumni Association, specifically with the Western Balkans Chapter. This communication will help tackle some of the issues that local MSCA fellows are encountering and give support in establishing good practices and writing policies to improve the current research situation in the region. The MCAA Western Balkans Chapter can provide examples of successful projects and share tips for local researchers more sustainably.

Another opportunity for both universities and NCPs is to contact their colleagues in countries that have gone through the same experience as the Western Balkans, for example, Poland or Slovakia. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and start from zero. Learn from others’ mistakes and go from there.

POLICY ANSWERS: What is the role of the MCAA WB Chapter? What kind of support or cooperation opportunities can the MCAA offer for different stakeholders (master and doctoral students, NCPs, universities, etc.) in the Western Balkans?

Ornela Bardhi: The Western Balkans Chapter was created as a forum for interaction between MCAA members originating from or are currently based in territories in the Western Balkans region where there was no existing MCAA Chapter until April 2019. All MCAA members with the nationality of one of the Western Balkans, or any MCAA member residing in this geographical area, are welcome to become a member of the Western Balkans Chapter.

The Western Balkans Chapter aims to connect and represent MSCA fellows and MCAA alumni from the Western Balkans region, with many residing abroad and being part of the so-called “scientific diaspora”. We advocate for best practices in science and research in the region and the adoption of policies and approaches that should help science in the Balkans reach wider European and global standards.

I mentioned some of what we can offer above. However, I would highlight one critical aspect. As many of the members reside abroad, we can be a link between local stakeholders and the “scientific diaspora” to collaborate or even work on how to use their skills and expertise in the region. There is a real issue with brain drain in the region, and one way to address the problem is by working with the scientific diaspora. For this to happen, all actors should work together to improve the legislation for international projects and for the people involved to work smoothly. The Western Balkans Chapter is pleased to assist in this as well.

POLICY ANSWERS: Many thanks for this kind interview and offers for further cooperation! Let’s add for all readers the way to get in touch with you and the colleagues from the MCAA Western Balkans Chapter:

Email: western-balkans.chapter@mariecuriealumni.eu.

Twitter: @MCAA_WB

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/mcaa-western-balkans-chapter