There is a letter in the Times today with a very impressive list of signatories including Sir Mark Walport – Director of the Wellcome Trust, Martin Rees – former president of the Royal Society, and AMRC’s very own chair, Lord Willis voicing concerns that placing restrictions on the right of migrants to settle in the UK – meaning many can effectively only work here for five years – may discourage skilled scientists from choosing to come to the UK, with knock on effects for UK research which relies on highly skilled people being here to do it.
In the coalition agreement the government committed to reducing net immigration to the UK.
This led to a review of the various tiers by which international immigrants enter the UK through the points-based system.
Science relies on international movement of skills. There were considerable concerns about the adverse impact increased restrictions could have on the movement of skilled scientists.
The scientific community voiced these concerns loudly, responding to consultations and a group of high-profile researchers wrote to the Times. In response the government put in place some measures to ensure skilled international scientists would still be able to come and work in the UK (for a summary, check out the CaSE pages on this issue). However there are ongoing concerns as the new system gets up and running and the government’s review of the system continues.
The government is currently reviewing the policy allowing migrants to earn a right to settle in the UK. They have consulted on this and we expect a response soon. The science community is concerned because restricting the option for researchers to eventually settle in the UK effectively means they are unlikely to be able to work here for longer than five years – a short time in science if you consider how long it can take to take to build up and work on a programme of research.
What happened today?
The Campaign for Science and Engineering has worked with the science and engineering community to send an open letter to the Times stressing our concerns:
A year ago this page carried a letter from eight Nobel prize-winning researchers, explaining how curbs on immigration could damage the UK’s science and engineering excellence. The Government listened at the time, but now appears to have forgotten the warning.
The Government is proposing to end the right of migrants to settle in the UK, effectively forcing the vast majority to leave the country after five years. This policy would be a profound mistake, jeopardising our position as a hub for the world’s finest scientists and engineers.
A recent report for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills noted that the UK provides the best ‘bang for buck’ of any G8 nation when it comes to research, while the economic and social benefits are immense and visible everywhere.
This eminence relies on a global outlook. Nearly half of all UK researchers collaborate with overseas colleagues, while migrant scientists such as Andre Geim, Konstantin Novoselov, and Venki Ramakrishnan have all won Nobel Prizes whilst working in British labs.
When the best international researchers decide where to work they will consider the prospects for their careers and families. If they cannot be confident of a stay longer than five years – barely long enough to supervise a PhD, let alone a major research programme – then we will be ruled out as a destination.
Let us be clear; the UK needs these people more than they need us. Moreover, if we are trying to improve links with nations such as China and India, the worst possible way to start is by turning their best minds away from our doorstep. The Government must decide how much it values our scientific prosperity.
Ensuring the best scientists are attracted to work in the UK is important to medical research charities who want to fund high quality research. Phil Willis, AMRC’s chair, has signed this letter.
It appears in the paper today complete with an article.
The letter is also being sent to the Home Secretary Theresa May, and the Minister for Immigration Damian Green.
The article quotes the UK Border Agency response to the letter:
A spokeswoman for the UK Border Agency said:
“The UK is determined to attract the brightest and the best talent to the UK and maintain our leading global position. But settlement in the UK is a privilege, not a right.
“We have consulted widely on the issue, including with representatives from science and research, and will shortly be announcing our policy.”
And in fact at Home Office questions in the Commons on Monday this week , the potentially negative impact of restrictions on immigration for the movement of highly-skilled individuals such as researchers was raised by Julian Huppert:
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): All of us want to try to avoid abuse of all the immigration systems, but does the Minister accept that our high-tech industries in particular rely on key individuals from overseas? It is very important to be able to attract those individuals, and some of these immigration changes risk deterring them from coming here. What steps will he take to ensure that we still get the key international people we need?
Damian Green: I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that we have already taken those steps. Indeed we are bringing down the number of people coming here but, at the same time, we are differentiating more effectively, so that the brightest and the best can continue to come here. That is why we have created the new investors and entrepreneurs visas, which have doubled the number of entrepreneurs who have come into this country over the course of this year, and that is why we have set up the exceptional talent route.
As the UKBA said in response to the letter, they plan to announce their policy shortly. So we should soon know whether they have taken these concerns on board.