Boris Johnson tries to ease UK science sector fears with fast-track visa route

9 Aug 2019

Boris Johnson during a visit to the Fusion Energy Research Centre. Image: Julian Simmonds/The Daily Telegraph

With many Irish and international researchers based in the UK worried about a no-deal Brexit, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has made a big promise.

A new fast-track visa route will be created for foreign scientists coming to the UK as part of a shake-up of immigration rules to boost the science sector, the UK prime minister has announced.

Unveiling the plans on a visit to the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire on Thursday (8 August), Boris Johnson said he wanted to ensure the country’s immigration system attracted “the very best minds from around the world”.

The UK’s Home Office and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been instructed by the prime minister to work with the scientific community to develop the new visa route, which the government hopes to launch later this year. The proposals come after the Wellcome Trust, a leading charity and medical research institute, warned the prime minister that a no-deal Brexit threatened the science sector.

Boris Johnson in a white hardhat walking out a door partly obscured by a poster.

Boris Johnson said he wants the UK to continue as a global science superpower. Image: Julian Simmonds/The Daily Telegraph

Johnson said: “Britain has a proud history of innovation, with home-grown inventions spanning from the humble bicycle to the lightbulb. We were home to the world’s first national DNA database, we discovered graphene and our cutting-edge scientists should be proud to follow in the footsteps of titans like Ada Lovelace and Nobel laureates Francis Crick and Peter Higgs.

“But to ensure we continue to lead the way in the advancement of knowledge, we have to not only support the talent that we already have here, but also ensure our immigration system attracts the very best minds from around the world.”

The fast-track immigration route will be designed to attract researchers and specialists working in science, engineering and technology. Options that the government said could be discussed with institutions and universities include abolishing the 2,000-per-year cap on the number of tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas.

Potential changes

Other potential changes include expanding the pool of British research institutions that can endorse immigration candidates and creating criteria that confers automatic endorsement, subject to immigration checks. The government will also look at ensuring workers’ dependants have full access to the labour market, removing the need to hold an offer of employment before arriving and providing an accelerated path to settlement.

Johnson said: “I want the UK to continue to be a global science superpower, and when we leave the EU we will support science and research and ensure that, far from losing out, the scientific community has a huge opportunity to develop and export our innovation around the world.”

Last month, Wellcome Trust chair Eliza Manningham-Buller said the majority of its annual £1bn support for research was spent in the UK because it had a “thriving sector”. “Leaving the EU without a deal is a threat to that,” she added. “I am afraid that some damage has already been done, with loss of researchers and influence.”

Manningham-Buller called on Johnson to create a “welcoming immigration policy” and to set out a “bold and ambitious vision for UK science”.

Asked about the risks of a no-deal Brexit at the Culham Science Centre, Johnson told the BBC: “We don’t want a no-deal Brexit, we’re working for a deal, but be in no doubt that the UK will continue under any circumstances to collaborate in great scientific projects.”

He said the UK would continue to be involved in international research efforts such as the ITER fusion project in France, the CERN lab in Geneva, Switzerland, and the EU’s Horizon schemes. Johnson told the BBC: “We’re not only going to participate in those schemes, we in the new UK government are determined to finance big science as well.”

‘Status as a global research hub is at risk’

Johnson cited the research work on fusion power at the Culham Science Centre as an example of potentially commercially viable projects the government seeks to support. The new visa proposals would complement plans for an Australian-style points-based immigration system, Downing St said.

The government intends to provide additional funding for scientists who had sought EU funding before Brexit, including schemes delivered by the European Research Council, to ensure researchers are not disadvantaged.

If there is a no-deal Brexit, the government said it will ensure any Horizon 2020 funding applications waiting for approval will instead be automatically reviewed by UK Research and Innovation, with successful bids receiving funds.

However, some have warned that the proposed change does not go far enough to securing EU and international talent in the UK. Mark Smith, a partner for innovation incentives at Ayming UK & Ireland, said the UK’s “status as a global research hub is at risk”.

“This is positive rhetoric but simply scrapping the cap on these fast-track visas won’t go far enough. EU workers account for around half of the UK’s scientific workforce and currently they don’t need visas at all,” he said.

“All R&D is dependent on highly skilled labour, which means having access to the best talent is crucial to the success of any project. It is very difficult to attract and retain talent so the government needs to make sure these visas apply across R&D in all sectors. Hopefully this initiative is put into practice but, in reality, how long will it take?”

Likewise, one of those behind the creation of graphene cited by Johnson, Dr Andre Geim, said to The Times that the prime minister was taking scientists “for fools” over the plan.

“The government may try and reduce the barriers to entry for scientists but they cannot reduce turmoil that would be caused to science in the UK by a no-deal Brexit,” he said. “Scientists are not fools. They know that turmoil is inevitable for many years.”

– PA Media, with additional reporting by Colm Gorey