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Working towards an immigration system that’s serious about science

As the end of the Brexit process approaches, the UK is moving towards having a newly reformed immigration system. With the Government's renewed focus on science and research, BSI Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Matthew Gibbard, discusses what this could mean for immunologists.

At the beginning of the year, as the UK left the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared to academics, students and businesses, ‘va et vient’ – an invitation to the world’s scientists that, after Brexit, Britain would be open to them to live and work. In the subsequent months, the Government has followed up this auspicious beginning with more tangible initiatives and policies aimed at making this ambition a reality including the announcement of an ‘Office for Talent’, based in Downing Street itself, to encourage scientists, researchers and innovators to come to the UK by making immigration simple, quick and easy. We, of course, await clarification of the details laying out how exactly this will be achieved, but the ambition is promising. Along with the Chancellor’s announcement at the March budget that public spending on R&D would be more than doubled to an unprecedented £22 billion by 2024–25, it confirms that this Government is serious about science.

The publication of the R&D roadmap at the beginning of this month builds on these previous announcements. Back in February, the Government introduced a ‘global talent visa’ to fast track scientists and technicians through the immigration process if they are named on a successful grant application from a recognised funder; the roadmap commits to a review of the costs of the visa and to examine whether eligibility should be expanded – the latter being something that has already happened for those working on COVID-19 research.

Costly visas

This would be a welcome move, with the cost of UK visas being significantly higher than in comparable countries: at the moment, the total average upfront cost for a Tier 2 skilled worker visa – taking the costs to the researcher and their employer together – is £8,419, 540% higher than the average cost in other leading scientific nations (£1,316). And while we should aim to retain global talent once here, a researcher in a family of four faces nearly £10,000 of fees if they want to apply for indefinite leave to remain. This is an obvious deterrent to choosing to work in the UK over somewhere else.

In tandem with other science and research focused organisations, the BSI has been pushing the case for a long time about the benefits of international scientific collaboration and the importance of attracting and retaining global talent, with costly visas being one area where we have taken action on this. Back in May, we co-signed a sector statement organised by Cancer Research UK to call on the Government to re-examine visa costs, so were pleased to have had success with Government’s roadmap announcement.

Immigration Bill

The BSI, along with the voices of allied scientific organisations, have been instrumental in shaping the current Immigration and Social Security Bill that is currently moving through Parliament, and that will define our post-Brexit immigration system for years to come. We have lobbied the Government extensively to scrap the cap on Tier 2 visas issued to skilled migrants and to lower the minimum salary threshold from £30,000, which would be exclusionary to many early career researchers and technicians. These measures have been backed by the Government as part of the new immigration system, along with an extension of post-study work rights for PhD students coming from abroad.

The BSI Careers Report found that 42% were from abroad with 26% from the EU and 16% from non-EU countries. This is a vivid illustration of how important it is for immunology to attract and retain talent from around the world if we are to have any chance of plugging the skills gap that threatens our sector and underlies the importance of our policy work in this area. You can be assured that we will continue to leave no stone unturned, in making sure that we represent the immunology community to their best of our ability on this crucial issue in the months and years ahead.

Matthew Gibbard
BSI Policy and Public Affairs Manager