Royal Society Grudgingly Accepts Role as U.K. Border Guard

Paul Nurse, president of Royal Society.


As if Paul Nurse wasn't busy enough—he's just become president of the Royal Society and will head a new mammoth London biomedical research facility—the biologist has reluctantly agreed to involve the Royal Society in vetting foreign scientists who want work in the United Kingdom. In one of a string of immigration overhauls, the United Kingdom' Border Agency (UKBA) announced on Wednesday that it would be instituting a new set of work visas for up to 1000 non-European Union immigrants with "exceptional talent." But rather than judging the talent of work visa applicants itself, UKBA will be shifting that responsibility to various British academic bodies. The Royal Society gets 300 nominations as part of the program, the Royal Academy of Engineering 200, and the British Academy (arts and social science) and Arts Council England get to designate the remaining 500.

Despite the unusual power UKBA is giving the Royal Society, its officials—and, according to Nurse, most academics—are far from thrilled about the idea. "The fact is the Royal Society does not believe there should be restrictions" on the number of scientifically talented individuals who can work in the United Kingdom, Nurse tells ScienceInsider. "We're not happy that this policy has been introduced. But given that the government is introducing it, we've decided we should work with them to get it as effective as possible so we don't limit the introduction of scientific talent coming from overseas." If the system doesn't work as planned and ends up keeping good scientific talent out, Nurse adds, "then we will be informing the border agency this is a significant issue. And if they can't solve that, then we will withdraw from being involved in the vetting process."

The concept of capping researcher work visas has been criticized by numerous scientists in the past on the grounds that it could curtail the research excellence of the United Kingdom, which has 1% of the world's population but produces 10% of the world's scientific output. "I'm grateful that the government has listened to our concerns, but remember that there's no limit at all for wealthy investors, elite sportspeople, or religious ministers. Why have one for scientists and engineers?" Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering said in a press statement. Nurse agrees. "Frankly," he says, "I think that when you're attracting the best scientific talent, we should be welcoming them with open arms."

The visas are designated for senior career scientists who are leaders in their fields and want to come to Britain, and will allow them to work in the United Kingdom for an initial period of 3 years and 4 months, with a possible extension of 2 years and a permanent settlement option. Early-career scientists such as postdocs
are on a separate scheme in the United Kingdom's tiered system, also being revamped. Although the Royal Society doesn't have any say in who gets those visas, Nurse says the organization has concerns and will be "monitoring" the situation to make sure talented young scientists aren't turned away from the United Kingdom.="#header2">

The exact details of how the Exceptional Talent work visa will be granted are still in flux, Nurse says, but he expects that it will largely apply to scientists with an existing job offer who want to move to the United Kingdom. According to the UKBA press release, applicants won't need a sponsor but will need a recommendation from one of the designated bodies. UKBA, however, says it retains the final decision on any individual. Nurse says the Royal Society will draw on its "extensive network" throughout the world to evaluate visa applicants from non-European Union countries. The field that each applicant works in, the country he or she is from, and the university or company at which he or she plans to work are unlikely to be factors in the decision to nominate someone, Nurse says—scientific talent will be the main criterion.

But Nurse isn't hopeful about the Exceptional Talent work visa working as advertised. "We're very concerned this will be bureaucratic and laborious and that will put people off even on short-term visits, so we're looking at it with significant concerns," he says. "I don't know any research scientist who has any support for this scheme. It only seems to be making difficulties."

*This item has been corrected; the Campaign for Science and Engineering was originally referred to as the Council for Science and Engineering.