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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s U.K. government has announced plans to make it easier for top scientists to get visas.

REUTERS/Toby Melville

United Kingdom plans ‘office for talent’ to smooth entry for top scientists

The U.K. government plans to set up an “office for talent” to oversee visas and make it easier to attract top scientists after Brexit, according to an R&D road map announced today.

The R&D plan builds on a budget, announced in March, that held big boosts for science. The plan underscores the Conservative Party’s ambition to prioritize science post-Brexit, and reiterates a desire to double public R&D funding by 2024. It also calls for reducing the bureaucracy that hampers research, increasing open-access publishing, and boosting diversity of the research workforce. Alongside a £280 million research support package announced earlier this week for those who lost funding because of COVID-19, the road map dedicates a further £300 million to upgrading scientific infrastructure.

Among the new proposals in the plan is the talent office, which would be located in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office. Although the plan does not give details on the function of the office, it could have the authority to oversee immigration rules set up by other government agencies, says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield.

In response to concerns about the impact of Brexit on the recruitment of scientists, the U.K. government in February introduced a “global talent visa” that aims to speed scientists and technicians through immigration if they are named on a successful grant application from a recognized funder. The road map promises to review the visa’s cost to applicants and expand eligibility.

That would be welcome, says Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a U.K. research advocacy organization. When the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, EU citizens will be subject to the U.K. visa system, which is “significantly more expensive than global competitor countries,” he says. Expanding eligibility to include researchers who work in industry, rather than just academia, would also be good, he adds. The road map also announces changes to visas so that Ph.D. students who complete their degrees after summer 2021 can work in the United Kingdom for up to 3 years.

Brexit also threatens to undercut U.K. access to a major source of scientific funding: Horizon Europe, the 7-year EU research program that begins in 2021 and could be worth up to €100 billion. The road map says the U.K. government will seek a deal for “full association”: paying the European Union so U.K. scientists can tap Horizon Europe funds—with the proviso that it will withdraw if a suitable agreement cannot be reached and make up any shortfall in research funding that results. “The intention to associate with Horizon is so important,” says Beth Thompson, policy head at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. research funding charity. “What we don’t know is what the government considers to be a good deal.” Even if the United Kingdom pays more to Horizon Europe than it receives, it would still be good value, she says, given the benefits of access to wider research networks and global collaborations.

The road map is more of a vision than a specific plan, Thompson says, but it will help address some of the uncertainties introduced by Brexit. The ambition it describes is welcome, she adds, but there is further work to be done “to ensure that it is delivered.”