UK to abolish visa caps for leading scientists

09 August 2019

The UK plans to make it easier for scientists from overseas to work and live in the country following its departure from the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the "fast-track visa route" during his visit yesterday to the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, England.

Boris Johnson at the MAST Upgrade fusion experiment with UKAEA staff (Image: UKAEA)

The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) described it as Johnson's first major science policy announcement since taking office on 24 July. During his visit, Johnson was shown the work the centre is doing to develop nuclear fusion as a low-carbon energy source, including the new MAST Upgrade fusion experiment, which is researching a compact design for future fusion power stations. He also toured Culham's Materials Research Facility to see its research into materials for nuclear reactors.

The Prime Minister spoke with Culham apprentices about their careers and about the plans for a new GBP12 million (USD14.5 million) apprentice training centre, Oxfordshire Advanced Skills, opening in September on the site, CCFE said. He then visited RACE - a robotics centre run by CCFE's operator, the UK Atomic Energy Authority - to see how the latest research is helping UK industry compete in the fast-growing robotics sector.

Professor Ian Chapman, head of CCFE, said: "Fusion energy's huge potential is well known and the PM reiterated the government's support for our research. We also showed him how the Materials Research Facility and RACE are providing spill-over benefits and supporting UK industry in adjacent fields, at the same time as working towards delivering sustainable fusion energy."

Brightest and best

The Prime Minister's Office said the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had been instructed to work with the scientific community to develop a new fast-track visa route "for the brightest and best", with a view to launching it later this year.

"The fast-track immigration route will be designed to attract elite researchers and specialists in science, engineering and technology, from maths Olympiads at the very start of their careers to the winners of internationally recognised prizes and fellowships," it said.

Options which could be discussed with leading institutions and universities include, it said: abolishing the cap on numbers under the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas; expanding the pool of UK research institutes and universities able to endorse candidates; creating criteria that confer automatic endorsement, subject to immigration checks; ensuring dependents have full access to the labour market; removing the need to hold an offer of employment before arriving; and accelerated path to settlement.

These changes will complement plans for an Australian-style points-based immigration system, as set out by the Prime Minister when he came into office.

The government will also provide additional funding for scientists and researchers who have sought EU funding before the UK leaves the EU. This includes schemes delivered by the European Research Council "to ensure no-one is disadvantaged", it said.

In the event the country leaves without a deal, the government said it will ensure any Horizon 2020 applications "stuck in the approval process" when the UK leaves, will instead be automatically reviewed by United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) - with successful applications provided with funding. UKRI is a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation of the UK that directs research and innovation funding, funded through the science budget of BEIS.

Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU research and innovation funding project. The government last year made a commitment to underwrite UK funding of the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion project at Culham Laboratory until the end of 2020.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "These gifted minds will bolster the UK's standing as a hub for science and innovation as we look to introduce a points-based immigration system centred on what people will contribute to our great country."

Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: "We are at the forefront of international collaborations tackling some of humanity's greatest challenges, from climate change to critical health and societal issues. And as we prepare to leave the EU on 31 October we will make sure we continue to attract the best talent, reflecting our commitment to making the UK a science powerhouse while creating jobs and growth across the whole country."

No deal 'bad for science'

Responding to the government's announcement, 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 London-based Royal Society is the world's oldest independent scientific academy.

Ramakrishnan added: "The Society believes we should trust our universities and research institutes to make the right choices when identifying talented individuals the 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."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News