Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, showing the range of nationalities in his lab group.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, showing the range of nationalities in his lab group.

Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, arrangements for the movement of people to and from the UK look likely to change.  Will scientists be affected? And does this matter to the health of UK research?

Mobility and collaboration are defining characteristics of modern science. International collaborations have more impact and they are on the rise. As our recent Twitter campaign showed, #ScienceisGlobal. Scientists move to work with and learn from the best people and in the UK, 28% of academics are from outside the UK, with 16% from other EU countries.

So mobility matters, and Brexit has implications for it on two fronts. First, any changes to immigration policies will determine who can visit or work in the UK, as well as how easily UK researchers can travel to the rest of the EU. Second, how the UK engages with EU research programmes will determine whether scientists based here can access the support for collaboration and mobility that the EU provides.

Recruiting scientists to work in the UK

UK science thrives in part because it is able to attract the skilled people it needs from wherever they are found in the world. While the UK is an EU Member State, scientists who are from the EEA—which includes the EU, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein—or Switzerland can move with ease to and from the UK to take up jobs, attend conferences or visit collaborators. Scientists from elsewhere in the world need to be granted a visa.

As the UK prepares to leaves the EU, it is unclear how easily scientists will be able to move between the UK and the rest of the EEA and Switzerland in future. Scientists from those countries who are already working in the UK also face uncertainty about whether they will be able to work here after the UK leaves the EU; the Society has called on Government to provide urgent assurances to them.

The immigration debate

Immigration has emerged as a central issue in the wider debate about what Brexit will look like in practice, and public opinion looks set to be an important driver of the UK’s future approach to immigration policy. The Government have indicated that they will be looking to put limits on the movement of people from the EEA to work in the UK, and at the Conservative Party conference the Home Secretary indicated that she will look to reduce immigration from outside the EU too. A consultation is expected on these plans soon.

It is worth noting that public opinion on immigration is nuanced. In a survey after the referendum, British Future found that 46% of people wanted to see the number of skilled workers migrating to the UK increase, compared with just 11% who wanted their number to decrease.

The Society will be working to ensure that any new system is fair and transparent and enables UK industry and academia to attract the people they need from the global talent pool. Science and innovation can bring benefits across society, and foreign talent has long been part of the UK’s recipe for success. This talent ranges from Professors to technicians and students, moving for permanent jobs or short visits. Wherever they are coming from, these people should flow through a robust and efficient system with minimal bureaucracy and cost.

Of course, scientists move both to and from the UK. As the UK leaves the EU, those countries that UK citizens have previously been able to travel to freely will now also need to reconsider their immigration policies. Their decisions will determine how easily scientists from the UK can move across the EEA and Switzerland in future.

EU support for mobility in science

Many of the research programmes funded by the EU support scientists to move to and from the UK, for example through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions. They also support scientists to establish and maintain international collaborations, including large networks across Europe and beyond.

Our pre-referendum report on the role of the EU in international collaboration and researcher mobility includes more information on these schemes. The Society will be arguing for the UK to have the closest possible association with EU research programmes, but whether the UK will remain a part of them will ultimately be decided through the Brexit negotiations.

Do scientists need to be mobile, and what support do they need?

With a question mark over arrangements for mobility, it’s important that we understand how, when and why researchers move, how this is linked to scientific success, and why this is a good thing for the UK more broadly. To support this, the Society has commissioned RAND Europe to draw together the evidence on the international mobility of researchers. We’re also going to be looking in more detail at the role that EU research funding plays within the mix of funding streams in the UK.

This research will help us to develop advice to government not only to seek the best possible outcome of the negotiations, but also to implement the most appropriate domestic policies to enable UK science to continue to excel. For the UK to redefine its place in the world and make the best of a future outside the EU, supporting a strong and globally focussed research and innovation system should be a priority.

The Society is working to ensure the best possible outcome for UK science in the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. We’re breaking down the issues into three areas: mobility and collaboration, funding and infrastructures, and regulation. We’ll be blogging about our work in this area as we go. I surveyed the initial post-Brexit landscape in a previous blog.

Find out more about the Royal Society’s work on Brexit and UK science.