We know that having to meet salary thresholds is problematic for many in chemical sciences. Conflating salary and skill in this way is already an issue for the current visa system so the proposal to maintain the £30,000 salary requirement is a concern. This is particularly the case for start-ups and SMEs – who account for 96% of science and technology companies – who may not yet have the administrative capacity to apply for a sponsorship licence or the funds to match the salary threshold. Similarly for university departments, where nearly two-thirds of staff are EEA nationals but many do not meet the threshold.
In order to keep up with science and innovation, any future visa system has to be agile enough to match its rapid pace as well as consider all types of employer, large or small, as noted by the MAC. We hope for more clarity on this during the consultation as well as feeding into Government thinking on how to make it easier for smaller companies to get sponsor licences.
The importance of a welcoming and open attitude towards talented scientists cannot be overstated. Removing the cap on skilled worker numbers is welcome, however the Immigration Skills Charge remains. Similarly, the proposed short-term visa is, in the White Paper’s own words, "tightly constrained", including no right to settle or bring dependents. This risks making the UK unattractive for visiting roles, exchanges and other shorter-term roles in science. Language is also important here: the new arrangements must be described in welcoming ways.
Enabling the exchange of ideas and knowledge
But mobility of scientists not just about attracting talent to work in the UK. It is equally important that the UK’s scientists, researchers and technicians are able to go overseas to learn from others, share ideas and knowledge and have access to different, and sometimes better, facilities. If Freedom of movement ends for EU citizens coming here, then by definition it ends for UK citizens too.
In May, the Prime Minister also said that "the essence of scientific progress is not private contemplation, but collaboration. Every great British scientist could only reach new frontiers of invention because they built on the work of others, exchanged ideas with their contemporaries and participated in an international community of discovery".
The proposals in the White Paper could mean some opportunities for UK researchers and scientists to interact with peers and contemporaries is restricted, putting them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to collaboration and discovery. This would be an own goal for UK interests.
The Home Secretary made explicit that this is "the starting point of a national conversation on immigration". This is exciting to hear and we will work in close consultation with our community throughout 2019 to ensure these proposals are shaped to secure the best outcome for the chemical sciences.