U.K. plans post-Brexit easing of rules on migrant scientists

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson (EU2017EE/CC BY 2.0)

The U.K. is set to open its doors to top scientists in a bid to retain and strengthen its leading position in the field after Brexit. Through a series of reforms, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson aims to create a fast-track immigration route that facilitates the flow of talent from around the world. 

One of the many concerns raised by Brexit for British biotechs and the broader scientific community was the potential impact on leaving the European Union on access to talent. Today, rules on freedom of movement make it easy for companies to hire people from the other 27 EU member states. That is likely to change when the U.K. leaves the EU.

To insulate scientific organizations from the change, Johnson plans to make it easier for them to hire top researchers, regardless of where they are located. The fast-track is due to go live later this year but is currently just a list of proposals that Johnson wants the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to discuss with leading institutions and universities.

Ideas put forward by the government include lifting of a cap on the number of visas available to exceptional talents, granting the dependents of migrant scientists full access to the labor market and establishing an accelerated path to settlement. Johnson has high hopes for the reforms. 

"We're going to turn the U.K. into a kind of supercharged magnet, drawing scientists like iron filings from around the world,” the Prime Minister told the BBC.

Scientific bodies were broadly supportive of the proposals while stating that the benefits will not offset the harm of a no-deal Brexit, but it is questionable whether the changes will have the effects envisaged by Johnson. The abolition of 2,000 annual cap on exceptional visas is top of the list of ideas put forward by the government but that is a largely symbolic action as the ceiling is never reached. 

That fact nullifies the impact of one of the changes. In other areas, the effects will be dampened by the presence of existing fast-track schemes, such as the pathway that permits companies to hire biological scientists and biochemists from outside of the EU without advertising the position.

However, even a symbolic shift in tone or rhetoric could have positive effects. The vote to leave the EU was widely seen as a rejection of freedom of movement and made the U.K. a less attractive place to live and work in the eyes of some migrants. Under Theresa May’s leadership, the government failed to dispel those impressions. 

May’s government expressed a desire to attract skilled migrants but its other statements and actions suggested companies may struggle to hire from the EU after Brexit. May vowed to get net migration below 100,000 and during her time as Prime Minister the Home Office refused to give a visa to the 22-month-old child of a postdoc at the University of Oxford, causing the researcher to leave. 

Johnson dropped the 100,000 target shortly after taking office and made the creation a points-based migration system a central part of his vision for post-Brexit Britain. The migration system envisaged by Johnson will be modeled on that used by Australia.