UK promises fast-track visas post-Brexit and makes ERC cash vow

Research leaders welcome announcements but warn of impact of no-deal departure

August 8, 2019
Boris Johnson
Source: iStock

The UK government has pledged to introduce a new fast-track visa system for leading researchers after Brexit, and to fund British-based academics’ applications for European Research Council grants in the event of a no-deal departure.

The announcements by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that he wanted the UK “to continue to be a global science superpower”, were welcomed by research leaders, but they cautioned that leaving the European Union without a deal would still have a devastating impact on the country’s research performance.

On immigration, options under consideration include abolishing the cap on the number of visas that can be awarded under the Tier 1 “exceptional talent” category, which is currently restricted to 2,000 places annually.

Other proposals include creating immigration criteria that confer automatic endorsement, subject to immigration checks, and expanding the pool of research institutes and universities that are able to endorse candidates.

The government is also looking at how to make it easier for dependants to come to the UK and get jobs, removing the need to hold an offer of employment before arriving, and creating an accelerated path to settled status.

On funding, the government said that it would provide “additional funding for scientists and researchers who have sought EU funding before we leave”, including from the European Research Council, “to ensure no one is disadvantaged”.

While the government had previously pledged to underwrite funding awarded to UK-based researchers under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme in the event of a no-deal departure, allowing them to continue taking part as “third country” participants, third country participation is not permitted under some schemes, including the highly prestigious ERC.

“In the event we leave without a deal, the government will ensure any Horizon 2020 applications stuck in the approval process when the UK leaves, will instead be automatically reviewed by [UK Research and Innovation] – with successful applications provided with funding,” the government said.

The announcements respond to concerns that restrictions on scientific mobility and the loss of access to European research collaborations after Brexit could have a devastating impact on the UK’s scientific performance.

EU researchers currently account for about half of the UK’s scientific workforce, and don’t need visas to work in British labs – but they will do after Brexit. Concerns have also been raised about the cost, time and bureaucracy of the existing visa application process.

Vivienne Stern, the director of Universities UK International, said the announcement on “in-flight” ERC grants was “probably worth about £600 million”.

Mr Johnson made the announcements on a visit to the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire.

“We have to not only support the talent that we already have here, but also ensure our immigration system attracts the very best minds from around the world,” he said. “When we leave the EU we will support science and research and ensure that, far from losing out, the scientific community has a huge opportunity to develop and export our innovation around the world.”

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said that the organisation “welcome[s] the government’s objective of supporting science by facilitating immigration of researchers at all levels, and look[s] forward to discussing the details of a new immigration system”.

“But the fact remains, half of international academic talent in UK universities comes from the European Union and the EU is our single largest research collaborator,” Sir Venki said. 

“Alongside immigration reform, therefore, maintaining close working ties with researchers in Europe and access to EU research funding, is essential. 

“A ‘no-deal’ exit from the EU is the worst option for science.”

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