Prime minister announces fast track visa for scientists

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that a fast track visa for scientists, mathematicians and researchers will be available from 20 February. With the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union on 31 January, Johnson is keen to emphasise that “the UK is open to the most talented minds in the world”.

Johnson said the country “has a proud history of scientific discovery, but to lead the field and face the challenges of the future we need to continue to invest in talent and cutting-edge research”.

“That is why as we leave the EU I want to send a message that the UK is open to the most talented minds in the world, and stands ready to support them to turn their ideas into reality,” he said.

Last year he promised to turn the UK into a “supercharged magnet to attract scientists like iron filings”.

However, opposition parties were quick to point out that the continuing requirement for visa applicants to prove they will be earning a salary of £30,000 (US$39,200) or more restricts the impact the visa can have on bringing young researchers to the UK. The Times reported that Johnson is still considering what to do about that.

The new system

The Global Talent route replaces the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route that allowed applicants to be endorsed by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy, Tech Nation or Arts Council England. Under the new route the UK Research and Innovation or UKRI funding agency will also be able to endorse applicants from the scientific and research community.

The Home Office said the new fast-track scheme will be managed by UKRI. It will enable UK-based research projects that have received recognised prestigious grants and awards, including from the European Space Agency and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, to recruit top global talent, benefiting higher education institutions, research institutes and eligible public sector research establishments – this will enable an individual to be fast-tracked to the visa application stage.

The number of eligible fellowships – such as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, the European Research Council and Human Frontier Science Program fellowships – will be doubled.

Applicants will continue not to be required to have a job offer before arriving in the UK and certain restrictions will be eased.

There will be an accelerated path to settlement for scientists and researchers who obtain the visa; and an exemption from the absences rule for researchers, which means they will not be penalised if they spend long periods out of the country carrying out research.

The Home Office said the changes are part of an initial phase of wider reforms to enable people with world-class skills in science and research to come to the UK as soon as possible.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “The UK is a world leader in science, with research and innovation that changes lives being undertaken every day in this country.

“To keep the UK at the forefront of innovation, we are taking decisive action to maximise the number of individuals using the Global Talent route including world-class scientists and top researchers who can benefit from fast-tracked entry into the UK.”

The new visa will not have a cap on the number of people who can use it, unlike the existing visa for people with exceptional talent which has a cap of 2,000. But the existing cap has never been reached and in 2018 only 525 applicants were admitted under the scheme.

Critical juncture

The effort to shore up the UK’s attractiveness to scientists and researchers comes at a critical juncture, with the UK formally withdrawing from the EU on 31 January.

It will do so without any agreement in place on the UK’s continuing involvement in EU research programmes and its Erasmus+ study and exchange programmes for students and academic staff after 2020.

The withdrawal agreement coming into force on Friday allows until the end of this year for future trade and other arrangements with the EU to be agreed. In the worst case scenario, if there is no agreement, the UK could be left having to fill a £1.5 billion research funding gap and the country could miss out on £39 million a year in export earnings from participation in Erasmus+ – or significantly more if EU plans to double the size of the scheme are realised.

At present, EU researchers make up around half of the UK’s scientific workforce of 211,000 people. Visas are not required to work in British laboratories currently, but they will be if, as expected, freedom of movement between the EU and UK ends following the transition period at the end of this year, unless exemptions are negotiated.

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson, said: “If the government is serious about championing science, it must prioritise continued mobility as part of our future relationship with the EU.”

Proposed salary threshold reduction

On Tuesday 28 January, the Migration Advisory Committee, or MAC, responded to the Home Secretary’s commission into an Australian-style points-based system and salary thresholds for immigration. Its report recommended reducing the general salary threshold from £30,000 to around £25,600.

But Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “While there is welcome recognition that the salary threshold of £30,000 was too high, there should be a further reduction to attract a diverse workforce, including lab technicians and language assistants, who are vital to supporting the success of our universities.

“We are also concerned that standard salary levels in higher education sectors would no longer be recognised, meaning it will be harder to attract international talent into key lecturer roles.”

Universities UK had recommended a salary threshold of £21,000 per annum to allow recruitment for technician and language assistant roles across the higher education sector.

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, chair of MillionPlus and vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, called for clear government objectives and greater consultation before going ahead with a proposed points-based system.

“Such a significant change to the immigration system requires careful planning and we hope this report will spark a new period of consultation with the government to determine a system that works in the best interest of the UK,” he said.

Investment in mathematical sciences

The government has also announced investment of up to £300 million to fund experimental and imaginative mathematical sciences research by top global talent over the next five years.

With around £60 million in funding available per year, the investment will double funding for new PhDs, as well as increase the number of maths fellowships and research projects – expanding the pool of trained mathematicians in the UK and providing more freedom for researchers to develop new ideas.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “Today’s announcements further underline the importance of research and innovation to the future success of the UK and the government’s continued commitment and investment.”

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “We share the prime minister’s vision to position the UK as a magnet for global science and research talent.

“The Global Talent visa is a positive step towards this for UK universities. The visa route will help to ensure that universities can attract the brightest scientists and researchers to the UK with minimal barriers.”

But Labour's spokesperson for industrial strategy, Chi Onwurah, while welcoming the additional support and recognition for science, said the new visa announcement suggested a “lack of understanding of innovation, which depends on scientists, researchers, engineers and technicians at all levels and not just a few ‘top talents’”.

This story was updated on 29 January 2020.