Much-needed visa reform needs to be swiftly followed by a UK-EU deal for science

Boris Johnson's announcement of reforms to the immigration system for scientists is a step in the right direction. But alone it won't be enough to keep the UK as a global research leader following Brexit.

Professor Sir Andre Geim in his Manchester lab.
Professor Sir Andre Geim, whose work was instrumental in the discovery of graphene, in his Manchester lab. He's fearful of the uncertainty posed by Brexit.
Credit: cellanr / Flickr

Beth Thompson

Beth Thompson

The government’s announcement of a new immigration system left the Nobel laureate Professor Sir Andre Geim unimpressed. Originally from Russia, Geim brought his lab to Manchester, after a stint in Holland, where his work was instrumental in the discovery of graphene. 

This wonder material has been lauded by the Prime Minister, but the sheen is coming off this success story for Professor Geim. In recent years he’s seen his long-term collaborator leave for Singapore and is fearful of the uncertainty posed by Brexit. His experience is not unique. We’ve heard from cancer researchers unable recruit the staff needed for their labs and neuroscientists turning down grants in exchange the certainty and support offered in other countries.

What will it take to reassure Professor Geim and others to once again see the UK as a global science leader and a welcoming place to live and work?

Yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister to reform view the immigration system is a step in the right direction.    

The UK’s immigration system is creaking, overly complex and will be unable to cope if we’re to rely on it for all researchers entering the UK after 31 October 2019.

We need a visa system which is easy to navigate and ensures researchers and technical staff from all countries, regardless of backgrounds and career stages, feel welcomed here and able to bring their expertise and interact with others in the UK.  

Giving universities and research institutes the power to endorse researchers who wish to work in the UK is welcome. We would like to see trust placed in those who are recruiting scientists at the cutting edge. 

Science is built on successful teams. But the PM’s announcement misses a vital part – the technical workforce. They bring skills and knowledge that are essential to supporting research and are highly trained, yet many don’t have a PhD. Think of engineers who work on particle colliders, data scientists in the NHS, programmers bringing us next generation internet search. 

Finally, immigration system for science needs to work for researchers who visit the UK for conferences and projects. This element is missing from the government’s plans so far, yet over the last year leading experts in the response to the Ebola epidemic, AI and big data for wellbeing in low-and middle-income countries and child nutrition experts have all been refused entry to the UK to attend academic conferences.

Conferences are where new research alliances are forged and revolutionary new ideas are formed. If we’re missing the voices that we need in the room, then conference organisers will simply take them to countries with more open immigration systems.

A great visa system alone is just part of the challenge in keeping the UK as a global research leader following Brexit. We urgently need the UK and EU to agree a deal for science following Brexit. This will allow the UK to participate fully in the EU’s research programmes, and to ensure collaborations – such as clinical trials of rare diseases – aren’t put at risk. 

This much-needed visa reform, and securing a deal for science, will help provide the certainty Professor Geim and researchers across the country need over their futures and encourages more of them to build their careers here. 

Beth Thompson on LinkedIn