The UK could learn lessons from countries that have a separate immigration rule for scientists and university researchers

In June the government announced a temporary cap on the number of skilled workers from non-EU states that can enter Britain. The move prompted concern in the scientific community that it would lose access to a rich pool of international talent and potentially jeopardise the UK’s ability to remain at the forefront of global research.

Before this annual limit is made permanent in April next year, the government could learn lessons from other scientifically advanced nations - also aware of the need to control migration - who have made exceptions for researchers in their immigration policies. 

In 2000, the US applied an annual cap of 65,000 on its ’specialty occupation’ H-1B visa, which covers scientists, engineers and medics. But it introduced an exception for those ’employed at an institution of higher education or its affiliated or related nonprofit entities or a nonprofit research organisation, or a government research organisation’. A separate cap of 20,000 H-1B visas is also available for foreign students graduating from US universities with a Master’s degree or higher.


Skilled workers may be queuing up to enter the UK, but only a fraction will be allowed in

These clauses allow universities and other research organisations the freedom to employ talented individuals from outside the US with fewer constraints.  

A consultation into the immigration cap proposals was launched by the UK Home Office in June. ’We have consulted with business and other interested parties on how the limit should work and have also asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consult on what the actual limit should be,’ minister for immigration Damian Green told Chemistry World. ’These consultations are now closed and we will announce the findings in due course.’  

Making a point 

The US, unlike other countries with immigration caps (such as Australia and Britain), does not have a rigid points-based system that can limit its choice of foreign nationals entering the country. 

Points are allotted for a range of attributes, such as the applicant’s level of education, wage offered and whether the role can be filled by the resident labour force. It does not allow for recognition of scientific excellence and researchers can find it difficult to accumulate enough points to qualify for a visa. Recent cases of such obstacles preventing the recruitment of talented overseas candidates at Cambridge University and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have been highlighted in the press, standing testimony to the rigidity of the system.

’It’s depressing that our visa regulations don’t adequately reward scientific merit,’ says Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK. ’If the UK government can make exceptions for Premier League footballers, there is absolutely no excuse for them not to sit down with organisations like the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to make sure that we can attract the top researchers on whom this country depends. They support public services, not drain them, and the government could win itself a huge amount of respect by admitting that it has got this issue badly wrong.’

These sentiments were reiterated by eight British Nobel laureates in a recent letter to The Times newspaper,  in which they said that an immigration cap ’would damage our ability to recruit the brightest young talent as well as distinguished scientists into our universities and industries’. Almost a quarter of all British Nobel prizes have been won by scientists of born outside Britain.

George Whitesides is a renowned chemist at Harvard University in the US with many non-US postdoctoral researchers in his group. ’Science and technology are growing in their global nature,’ he told Chemistry World. ’To maintain its scientific growth a country, be it the UK or the US, should not hamper the chances of employing a talented researcher just based on their nationality.’ 

The current immigration cap on skilled workers is pegged to reduce the number of immigrants by about 1,300 - a fraction of the total non-EU immigration figures of 187,000 in 2008. But given the current economic conditions, the immigration cap on such skilled workers seems counterintuitive as this small fragment of the total immigration arguably contributes most to the economy.

Unless the government, in its announcement of the permanent cap in April, includes some kind of exception for researchers as in the US, it is bound to affect the scientific potential of Britain, not just by a decreased pool of intellect but also reduced economic gains. Combining this immigration policy with the cuts to be announced tomorrow in the Comprehensive Spending Review could prove a disastrous combination for science in the UK.

Akshat Rathi