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expert reaction to Boris Johnson’s plan to ‘cement the UK as a science superpower’, including proposals for a new fast-track visa route to attract the best researchers

Boris Johnson has announced plans to ‘cement the UK as a science superpower’, including proposals for a new fast-track visa route to attract the best researchers, particularly post-Brexit.

 

Dr Laura Bellingan, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, the Royal Society of Biology, said:

“We welcome the PM’s enthusiastic recognition of UK research and development strength, the huge potential for future gains, and the prominent role that international scientists and researchers must play in this.

“UK success in science and research relies on a wide range of talents, skills and collaborations, at all points along many different career paths.

“With the right reforms the system could support the short term, long term and settled status immigration needs of a research and development community and their families – the community the PM hopes to attract.

“We would be pleased to see the detailed proposals and to help towards the goal, but it will not be enough in itself.

“The right funding and support for the sector and a welcoming culture are vital ingredients to attract the diverse community that the UK needs to succeed.  It is not enough to be a possible destination, we must continue to be a popular one among the increasingly competitive global options.

“If we are to maintain our position as a world leader of science and technology, Government must put us in the best position to collaborate with and join in EU funding programmes among others.  The risk of falling behind is always high, and decades of sustained efforts to succeed should not be jeopardised.”

 

Prof Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:

“Engineering, with its world class talent, universities, companies and facilities, should be at the heart of delivering renewed prosperity to the UK – I am pleased to see that the Prime Minister’s vision for the future chimes with this.  Engineering companies in the UK, from large corporates to small innovative start-ups, recruit from a global talent pool.  They play a crucial role in ensuring that, through innovation, we can realise the value from our research base.  To ensure these companies can continue to flourish, our immigration system also needs to embrace innovators.  A fast-track immigration system for talented researchers and technicians will set the UK on the right track to maintain the UK’s position as a science and engineering superpower, home of innovations from the CT scanner to the Raspberry Pi, and reassure the world that the UK remains an open and welcoming country.

“However, EU research and innovation programmes have made vital contribution to the success of the UK’s research and innovation base.  A No-deal Brexit could dramatically increase our chances of being unable to participate in these programmes.  Step changes in both the UK’s international engagement and research and innovation investment are needed to achieve the government’s target of 2.4% of GDP invested in R&D and its associated economic and societal benefits.”

 

Prof John Hardy, Professor of Neuroscience, UCL, said:

“A no deal Brexit is already reducing Britain from a world science superpower to an also ran in Europe.  More money always helps but science is about collaboration across borders and even the threat of a hard Brexit is seriously damaging to our national interests.  The strategy of promising more help to every sector of the economy which will be damaged is simply not credible.”

 

Dr Daniel Rathbone, Assistant Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), said:

“Access to talented people is the absolute cornerstone of a thriving environment for science and engineering in the UK.  We welcome the powerful message from the Prime Minister that the UK is open and welcoming to the most talented and promising scientists from around the world.  Any move to make it easier for the brightest and best scientists from overseas to come and work in the UK is positive and welcome.

“However, the devil is in the detail – any new visa system must be streamlined, easy to use and competitively priced compared to other leading science nations.  Currently UK visas are significantly more expensive than those of other countries.  Science is also a collaborative enterprise so it would be very beneficial if there was a streamlined process for these talented scientists to bring their teams with them to the UK.”

 

Prof Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, and Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, University of Cambridge, said:

“Brexit has a special downside for science – simply because science is an enterprise that is especially international and collaborative.  The UK has traditionally been ‘welcoming’, and its scientific strength benefits hugely from the participation of EU citizens.  Even if visas are readily available, highly skilled people are only willing to settle if they know there is freedom of movement for families etc.  Cutting the vexatious form-filling now needed to apply for a Tier 1 Visa is of course a welcome move, but its effect will be no more than marginal – and far outweighed by the negative impact of Brexit itself.

“And incidentally it’s absurd to suggest that post Brexit we will develop stronger links with the rest of the world.  We’re doing this anyway and as I said above, it would be harder to attract top scientists post-Brexit because we’ll be perceived as a less attractive destination.

“We won’t just lose EU citizens.  If you were a young scientist from (say) India who wanted experience in the West, you’ll be less likely to put the UK above (say) Canada or Germany if you knew that it was becoming marginalised and less welcoming.

“The EU is one of three leading ‘blocs’ in world science, the others being the US and the far East; and we are the leading scientific country in the EU., with whose member countries we have wider links than with either of the other two blocs.

“Our international standing is being embarrassingly enfeebled by this Government’s stance and rhetoric.

“It’s absurd, and baffling to our foreign colleagues, that we are being put on a ‘war footing’ to achieve a status which is manifestly – in the short and medium term at least – worse than the status quo.  And as Keynes famously said ‘in the long run we’re all dead’.  Far better to abort this misadventure and revoke Article 50.”

 

Prof Bart De Strooper, Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, UCL, said:

“We welcome this initiative to still be able to recruit the best scientists from around the world and it addresses a few of our major concerns with Brexit.  We hope to see it come to light.  If the economy goes down it will be difficult to fund the research.”

 

Prof Lord Krebs Kt FRS FMed Sci, University of Oxford, said:

“The Prime Minister’s announcement may be a positive step, but the brute fact remains that Brexit is absolutely dreadful news for UK science.  We know that EU scientists have already left, talented young people have decided not to come here, and UK scientists have been excluded from EU projects because of Brexit.  If Mr Johnson really believed in the UK as a science superpower he would not be infavour of Brexit.”

 

Prof Matthew Freeman FRS FMedSci, Professor of Pathology and Head of the Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, said:

“These measures are welcome and important, assuming they move from being rather vague discussion topics to fully implemented policy.  The Prime Minister seems to embrace the economic, health and social importance of science.

“But I fear his announcement today will not be enough to mitigate the damage to UK science that a no deal Brexit will cause.

“If the UK loses its prominence on the European and world scientific stage, as it risks doing, then the global scientific elite will not want to come here, however easy we make it.

“The fact that we make visas easier will not help that much deeper problem.

“We need to understand that the UK is a major world scientific power but that position of strength relies on our close connections with all our international colleagues – in the EU and across the world.”

 

Dr Beth Thompson, Head of UK/EU Policy at Wellcome, said:

“Collaboration and international mobility make science stronger and enable the discoveries that will improve all our lives.

“Today’s announcement is a positive first step towards creating a straight forward, welcoming and lower-cost immigration system that works for science.  The new rules should place more trust in institutions, who are best placed to make decisions about the people they need to keep us at the cutting edge.  We would like to see this approach extended to the wider research workforce, including technical staff, and to cover short visits as well as long-term movement.

“A great visa system alone is not enough for UK science to thrive.  After Brexit, we urgently need the UK and EU to agree a deal for science to give researchers much-needed certainty over their futures.  Even with the best preparation, leaving the EU without a deal would leave a damaging vacuum in our relationship with our biggest research partner.”

 

Prof Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“Today’s proposal to reform the UK’s immigration rules in order to maintain our nation as a science superpower is an extremely welcome announcement.  Science is an inherently international endeavour and the UK’s excellence in research is underpinned by a multidisciplinary workforce of specialists from all across the globe.  This new vision from the Prime Minister indicates that his Government recognises this and I now look forward to seeing how the promising news will be implemented.

“Patients and the public have benefitted hugely from the UK being such an attractive place for talented people to come and work in some of our world-leading universities and laboratories.  Almost one third of the academic workforce in UK institutions are overseas nationals.  Without this diverse workforce our country would not be the hub of discovery and innovation that we are proud it is. It is absolutely essential that we can continue to attract and retain talented scientists from all over the world.

“Streamlining the visa route for researchers and, importantly, for their families, will dramatically improve an immigration system that is currently both costly and burdensome compared to other leading scientific nations.  If we get this right, we can send the message to our international collaborators that the UK welcomes researchers and scientists from across the globe.

“I am also encouraged to see the plan to underwrite the funds of any “in-flight” Horizon 2020 applications in the event that we leave the EU without a deal.  However, I remain conscious that if we do exit the EU without a deal, UK researchers would lose access to the European Research Council and other important aspects of European research programmes from the day that we leave the EU until the end of 2020.

“I continue to believe that a no-deal exit poses great risks to UK research and that a continued close relationship to the successor to Horizon 2020 – Horizon Europe – would be the best outcome for science.  However, in the event that a no-deal exit transpires, I urge the UK government to follow through on today’s pledge by providing long-term financial commitments to ensure that the UK research sector does not lose out on vital funding.”

 

Sir Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute:

“Anything that makes it easier for talented scientists and their families to come to the UK is important for the UK scientific endeavour to prosper, but we will need to see the details.  The new system will need to be much leaner than what we have now, without the high costs and paperwork.

“For the UK to stay open to the world, we need to change the rhetoric around immigration.  It’s not enough for people to be able to come here, they have to want to come in the first place.  That means presenting a welcoming image to the world, so people see this country as an attractive place to live, work and raise their families.

“The benefits of participating in European schemes go far beyond the money.  97% of research groups at the Francis Crick Institute would prefer to stay within the EU’s Horizon Europe fundingprogramme, as it promotes meaningful collaboration and has a reputation that no domestic scheme can hope to replicate.  The UK should associate to Horizon Europe as soon as possible if we are to maintain our high scientific standing.”

 

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said:

“The Royal Society has long called for reform of the UK’s costly and complex visa system which acts as a barrier to attracting the best international talent.

“We welcome the government’s objective of supporting science by facilitating immigration of researchers at all levels, and look forward to discussing the details of a new immigration system.

“The Society believes we should trust our universities and research institutes to make the right choices when identifying talented individualsthe UK needs to guarantee our position among the leading scientific nations.

“But the fact remains, half of international academic talent in UK universities comes from the European Union and the EU is our single largest research collaborator.

“Alongside immigration reform, therefore, maintaining close working ties with researchers in Europe and access to EU research funding, are essential.

“A ‘no-deal’ exit from the EU is the worst option for science.”

 

Declared interests

The nature of this story means everyone quoted above could be perceived to have a stake in it.  So we did not ask for interests to be declared, as they are implicit in the affiliations.

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