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What Do Recent Discussions on UK Migration Levels Mean for Immunology?


Brain flying

Back in 2010, David Cameron pledged to reduce net migration into the UK to below 100,000 – ‘no ifs, no buts’.

Six years (and one coalition government) later, and most recent estimates show immigration to be continuing its inexorable rise, with net migration reaching a record 336,000 in the summer of 2015.

Undeterred, both David Cameron and Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary, have renewed their commitment to bring net figures down to the tens of thousands.  With the Conservatives returning to Government with an overall majority for the first time since 1992, they will claim a clear mandate from the British public to deliver on these promises set out in their election manifesto.

The great immigration debate partly explains the determination to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU.  In 2014, EU net migration into the UK stood at 178,000, a figure the Prime Minister has called ‘unsustainable’ and one of the key areas of focus for Britain’s renegotiation with Europe.

Outside the European Economic Area

But if the Government has its hands tied in relation to the free movement of people across European borders, it has decidedly more power to impose controls on those wishing to come here from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).  Last month, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) – a non-departmental body of the Home Office tasked by the PM to look at ways of cutting non-EEA work migration – published new recommendations that could enable the Government to significantly decrease the number of visas it hands out to international workers.

The MAC’s solution is to price out potential applicants by imposing an increased salary threshold for the granting of Tier 2 visas, the primary route for skilled migrants.  Under the proposals, the minimum qualifying salary for a visa would increase from £20,800 to £30,000, while employers would also have to pay a new skills levy for appointing workers via the Tier 2 route.

The effect on immunology

How does this relate to immunology?  Well, a quick glance at any popular jobs website will show you that junior researchers are not always paid at this threshold price.  For example, recent non-EU PhD graduates would be excluded from working in many institutions under the proposals, whilst other employers would be forced to remunerate at the upper end of the salary scale.  The imposition of a skills tariff further increases costs for these institutions at a time when employers – such as universities – continue to grapple with the realities of the austerity era.

And yet immunology – as with science generally – is an inherently international endeavour.  The BSI’s membership, and indeed the experiences of immunologists up and down the country, tells its own tale of the UK’s success in attracting the best and the brightest to work here.  Science is a truly global community, with close collaboration between international peers and a free exchange of knowledge and ideas that is greatly enhanced by an internationally mobile workforce.  The very fact that the UK remains a science powerhouse despite declining public investment relative to our international competitors has much to do with our historically welcoming image when it comes to immigration.

Views of the science community

The influence of immigration on British science was recently set out in a new report from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).  Their document expertly and comprehensively characterises the positive influence immigration has over the success of science on these shores and warns that a perceived anti-immigration rhetoric is damaging the image of Britain overseas.  This perception, and the harm it has on our reputation as a global science hub, is further articulated through the findings of a recent House of Lords inquiry on international science students in the UK.  For example, their report highlights a collapse in the number of Indian STEM students choosing to study here (down 38% in 2011/12 and a further 28% in in 2012/13), a consequence they surmised that was not necessarily a result of the immigration rules themselves, but of the negative message communicated by the Government in strengthening immigration law.

It’s therefore easy to see how the recent proposals from the MAC are unhelpful.  The BSI urges the Government to tread a thin line with its policy prescription for this area and a more nuanced approach, one that preserves and encourages the great contribution immunologists from outside this country bring to our scientific output, should be taken.

Challenges ahead

There are many challenges in the year ahead, not least the spectre of an in/out referendum on Europe and the strengthening resolve of Government to fulfil its election promises on immigration.  It is for the BSI to communicate to decision makers the importance and value foreign migrants bring to science in this country, and the possible consequences of their policy decisions.  For this, we need your help, and I encourage BSI members to get in touch with us to relay their personal experiences and thoughts so we can communicate these to policymakers in Whitehall.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how changes to the visa system or a ‘Brexit’ would affect immunology.  However perhaps it’s worth looking to see what inferences we can draw from the past. In 1958, a biochemist by the name of César Milstein came to Britain from Argentina to work in the same lab where another immigrant, Jim Watson, had helped decipher the structure of DNA.  Nearly 20 years later, Milstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the immune system and monoclonal antibodies.  British scientific heritage is littered with stories of this ilk.  It begs the question: how many César Milsteins of the future might we miss out on?

Chris Lowry, Public Affairs Manager, BSI

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