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Boris Johnson at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy where he announced plans for a fast-track visa system for scientists.


Boris Johnson pledges to ease U.K. research visas, but plows ahead toward Brexit

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced plans to make it easier for scientists to come to the United Kingdom, an important concern for researchers. “A fast-track immigration system for talented researchers and technicians will set the U.K. on the right track to maintain the U.K.’s position as a science and engineering superpower,” Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, said in a statement. But scientists remain deeply worried about damage from the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union in October, a risk Johnson has said he is willing to accept.

After a visit to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, U.K., yesterday, Johnson said his government will create a fast-track visa system for scientists. The system, to be launched this year, would be open to researchers at any stage of their career. In an added benefit, family members could work while in the United Kingdom.

Immigration is one of the top concerns of the scientific community. The worry is that after Brexit, scientists, technical staff, and students from the European Union—the biggest source of scientific talent arriving in the United Kingdom—will have to go through the current visa process, which can take months and cost several thousand dollars. The risk is that the cost and bureaucracy would immediately make the United Kingdom a less attractive destination.

Several of Johnson’s announced changes are intended to keep the scientific talent coming. Most U.K.-bound scientists apply for what’s called a Tier 2 visa, which requires sponsorship from an employer—and a new visa with any subsequent change of employer. Tier 1 visas don’t have those constraints and are more attractive, but they are reserved for candidates with “exceptional talent” and must be endorsed by the Royal Society or a few other organizations. An annual limit of 2000 was never reached. Under the new system, this cap will be removed with anticipation that far more scientists will apply than before. To facilitate those applications, universities and research institutes will also be able to endorse candidates. “The new rules should place more trust in institutions, who are best placed to make decisions about the people they need to keep us at the cutting edge,” Beth Thompson, head of U.K. and EU policy at the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical charity in London, said in a statement.

The new system needs to be simple, cheap, and flexible, scientific societies say. Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a nonprofit in London, would like to see a streamlined process help top scientists come to the United Kingdom—and bring their research teams with them.

Research advocates welcomed the announcement, but they note that the economic damage and disruption of a chaotic Brexit would complicate cross-border collaborations, cut off U.K. researchers from EU funding streams, and hinder efforts to boost research and development funding to 2.4% of the nation’s gross domestic product.

The politics of Brexit remain uncertain and treacherous. Parliament won’t approve an existing Brexit deal that would smooth the divorce with the European Union. Johnson’s government remains in a political stalemate over a new Brexit deal and is ramping up its preparations for a no-deal Brexit. If no deal is approved, the United Kingdom will by default crash out of the European Union on 31 October.