Are the UK immigration policies science-friendly?

“Flags of All Nations”, copyright of 1910 by F.E. Wright

This post was originally posted on the Biochemical Society blog on 26 January 2016.

Look around your office, your lab or the next conference centre you are at. How many non-UK nationals do you see? If you are at a university, about a quarter of your academic colleagues will be non-UK nationals. You might be one yourself.


Immigration has been very high up on the political agenda lately with two reports being published within days of each other: the Migration Advisory Committee “Review of Tier 2”[1] and CaSE “Immigration: Keeping the UK at the heart of global science and engineering”. The latter of these was launched at the House of Lords breakfast roundtable discussion held with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health on 21 January 2016.

Competitiveness depends on being able to attract and recruit the best talent in the world

The UK has always punched above its weight in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and it is very important that it continues. Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, who is originally from India, shared his story of coming to the UK at the roundtable discussion and said he made this choice because the UK allowed him to pursue a challenging and rewarding career in science. He is also a Nobel Laureate.

The role of immigration in science

There is a big role for immigration to play in a healthy science and engineering sector. It is important that the UK is seen as a welcoming country which fosters science. Immigrants bring scientific, cultural, societal and economic benefits, as well as new ideas, perspectives and possibilities for international collaborations. Then there are skills shortages to fill – among engineering, science, and hi-tech firms, nearly half (44%) report difficulties in finding experienced recruits with the right STEM skills, particularly high-level STEM skills (CBI and Pearson, 2015).

Advantages of immigration are not limited to workers. About a third of all international students are doing a STEM degree, which means there are about 435,500 international students studying STEM courses in the UK at present. People have argued that it is pointless to train people in the UK and then lose the talent when they leave. However, this does not account for the financial benefit for universities in hosting international students, as well as the fact that many science projects in which the UK plays a role are underpinned by international collaborations involving people who may have studied here.

Removing hurdles that would compromise our science and engineering sector

The visa application process is claimed to be overly time-consuming and bureaucratic.  Putting tighter caps on numbers (e.g. there is currently a cap of 20,700 Tier 2 visas per year) and creating disincentives, such as high visa costs and long-time scales, has the potential to cause real damage to the UK science and engineering. It was stressed during the report launch that there needs to be a continuous line of communication between how the rules are created and how they work on the ground.

Projects take time and so does education and training. Therefore, we should not make decisions that would compromise our science in a few decades.

What does the public think about immigrant scientists?

The CaSE report found that while the public is opposed to general immigration, the support for immigration of high-skilled workers has increased: 35% of the public would like to see higher levels of immigration of scientists and researchers, making them the most-welcomed profession (NatCen, British Social Attitudes Survey, 2013).

Just how international is the UK research sector?

  • 40% of all British Nobel Prize winners were born overseas
  • A quarter (26%) of academic staff in our universities are non-UK nationals
  • More than 13,000 scientists and engineers came from outside the European Union to work in the UK in 2014/15.
  • 72% of UK-based researchers spent time at non-UK institutions between 1996 and 2012

Science is an international affair. The public sees value in it. Now let’s see if the Government does too.

See the CaSE report for more information on the impact of immigration on UK science and engineering.

The following people attended the discussion panel:  Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, Andy Furlong, Director of Policy and Communication at the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Naomi Weir, Assistant Director at Campaign for Science and Engineering and Professor Alan Manning from Migration Advisory Committee.

[1]   Tier 2 (General) is designed for skilled workers with a graduate-level or above job offer. See more information on different types of visas in CaSE report (p.52).