The prime minister has told the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to develop a “fast-track” visa route for scientists and researchers.
However, high-profile scientists have pushed back against Boris Johnson’s comments that removing visa restrictions for top science, engineering and tech specialists would “ensure our immigration system attracts the very best minds from around the world".
Johnson said he had instructed the two departments to explore options including removing the requirement for candidates to have a job offer before coming to the UK; creating a fast-track path to settlement rights; and abolishing the cap on Tier 1 "exceptional talent" visas. He said the changess would come into effect later this year.
The Home Office doubled the cap on exceptional talent visas – for so-called “global leaders or promising future leaders” in digital technology, science, arts and the creative industries – from 1,000 to 2,000 last year.
However, Home Office figures show only 983 exceptional talent visas were issued in 2018, up from 694 the year before. A third of the total issued in 2018 were to dependents.
Other options include increasing the number of universities and research institutes that can endorse visa candidates and giving dependents “full access to the labour market”.
At the moment, dependents of Tier 1 visa or Tier 2 work visa holders can work, but with some limitations. For example, they cannot seek employment as a professional sportsperson or doctor or dentist in training.
The announcement follows repeated warnings from universities and other institutions that the UK could lose top researchers from other countries – particularly the EU – after Brexit.
Academics are particularly concerned about the impact a no-deal Brexit could have on science in the UK. Their warnings came after Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said this weekend that the government was operating “on the assumption” the UK will leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
Last night the Nobel Prize winning physicist Sir Andre Geim said Johnson was taking scientists “for fools” by saying changing the immigration rules would attract top researchers to the UK.
“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,” Geim told The Times yesterday.
Scientists have said they are particularly concerned about the impact that losing access to European research funding and collaboration schemes, such as Horizon 2020 and its successor Horizon Europe, will have on UK research. The UK has yet to negotiate its continued participation in Horizon 2020 after Brexit.
Johnson’s announcement included a pledge to underwrite funding for bids submitted to Horizon 2020 – which is administered by the European Research Council – that are “stuck in the approval process when the UK leaves”.
But Sir Paul Nurse, the director of the prestigious Francis Crick Institute who carried out a major review of UK research funding structures in 2014, said losing access to the scheme would mean losing “meaningful collaboration” with international institutions.
“The benefits of participating in European schemes go far beyond the money,” Nurse, a Nobel laureate and geneticist, said.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said the learned academy welcomed “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 Royal Society has long called for reform of the UK’s costly and complex visa system. However, we have been clear that a no-deal exit from the EU is the worst option for science,” said the Nobel prizewinning structural biologist.
Hollie Chandler, senior policy analyst at the Russell Group of universities, saidCreating a new fast-track visa route for researchers and science specialists will make the UK a more attractive destination to global talent and bolster its position as a world leader in research.
“We look forward to working with Ministers on the design of this new route to ensure it supports research in all disciplines, talent at all career stages, and the full range of roles that are needed for an effective research environment, including lecturers, professors, early career researchers and technical staff.”