A time for boldness: EU membership and UK science after the referendum Contents

Chapter 3: People

Freedom of movement

40.Within the EU, workers benefit from freedom of movement, allowing them to reside and work freely within the territory of any Member State. It is a central tenet of the EU that there must be no discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment.

41.The subject of immigration into the UK was one of the major battlegrounds in the run up to the EU referendum and it seems likely that it will be a major component of the Brexit negotiations. Switzerland’s recent change in its immigration rules put that country at a substantial disadvantage in the scientific world.44

42.The report by British Future, What Next After Brexit?45 examined immigration and integration in the UK after the EU referendum. It commissioned research by ICM after the EU referendum which found that the public’s views on immigration were more nuanced than might first be thought. Figures 4 and 5 below show the results of this research in which people were asked about their attitudes to different categories of migrant to Britain.

43.This research showed that only 12% of people, for instance, would like to see a reduction in the numbers of highly skilled workers coming to Britain; nearly four times as many people (46%) would like to see more of it, with 42% saying that it should stay the same (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Immigration attitudes by types of migrant

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Source: British Future, What next after Brexit? Immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain (August 2016), p 11: http://www.britishfuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/What-next-after-Brexit.pdf [accessed 23 November 2016]

44.The same report also found that only 13% of people would like to see a reduction in the number of scientists or researchers coming to Britain. 46% would like to see this increased and 41% said it should stay the same (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Immigration attitudes by migrant profession

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Source: British Future, What next after Brexit? Immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain (August 2016), p 12

45.The EU referendum has resulted in uncertainty for EU researchers in the UK as well as UK researchers in the EU. The Government has sent encouraging but imprecise signals, and has not made unequivocal commitments to EU nationals pursuing research careers in the UK. Similarly, as far as we are aware, the EU has not made unequivocal commitments to UK nationals pursuing research in other parts of the EU.

46.The written evidence we received from the British Council and the Scientists for EU Campaign provided anecdotal but undocumented examples of scientists and students making decisions to leave or not to come to the UK because of the result of the EU referendum.46 On 19 July, Professor Alex Halliday, Vice-President and Physical Sciences Secretary of the Royal Society, told us that, “people are deciding not to come to the UK right now, and they are saying that they are not going to become a professor at such-and-such university—and we have growing evidence for this—because of what has just happened.”47

47.However, on 23 September, Professor Sir David Greenaway, Chair of the Russell Group, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, told us that he knew of only one case of an EU academic deciding not to come to the UK and citing the EU referendum result as one factor in this.48 Professor David Phoenix OBE, Chair of MillionPlus, and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, was similarly aware of only one such incident. He said there was “a danger in the discussion around … the exchange of staff where we talk ourselves into a position or let the media push us into a position without having a strong evidence base, because there are one or two examples around the sector, but not enough to be clear on”.49 Similarly, Dr Patrick Vallance, President of Pharmaceuticals R&D at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), told us that, “About 10% to 15% of our UK-based workforce are EU nationals. It is less of an issue for us and we certainly have not had any concerns expressed about what happens afterwards.”50 Jo Johnson MP said:

“In all my meetings with stakeholders I always ask them for any evidence of greater than usual churn of academics or talented people of one sort of other leaving the UK at a greater than normal rate or of fewer applications coming in than they might usually expect. I am keen to get any evidence of this sort of exceptional kind of churn that might be linked to the referendum, but I have not yet been provided with any.”51

48.Lord Stern of Brentford, President of the British Academy and IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics, whilst accepting that most of the current evidence was anecdotal, highlighted the importance of monitoring the flow of researchers between the UK and the EU: “You do not wait until the whole story has played its way through before deciding that the evidence is that this risk is strong. You have to act early on that and guaranteeing the position of those already here is not only the right thing to do morally, from my point of view, because we have given promises in the past, but economically.”52

49.There are similarities between the effect of uncertainties on funding as described in Chapter 2, and those on people as described in this Chapter. In both cases, hard, documented evidence is currently scarce but confidence in the scientific community continues to be undermined.

50.We recognise that at this early stage, there is little documented evidence of scientists from other EU Member States deciding not to come to the UK because of the EU referendum, or of UK scientists deciding not to work in other EU Member States for that reason. But nervousness about immigration and nationality persists in the science community. The delay in solid reassurances and mixed messages from senior ministers is having a corrosive effect on the UK research base.

51.It is essential that a robust evidence base is assembled to ensure that any necessary remedial action can be taken at the earliest possible stage. The Government and the wider science community should search in the short and medium terms for any early indications of change in the attractiveness of the UK to talented scientists.

Retaining talent

52.The evidence we received documented a strong preference in the science world to retain free movement of scientists within the EU. The Publishers Association told us that, “Ensuring free movement of staff and students between higher education institutions in the UK and EU is important. Restrictions would also make it difficult for universities to attract world class researchers and international students which would hamper the UK’s position as a leader in this field.”53 Cancer Research UK said that the existing free movement rules, including the right to bring partners and dependents, enabled the recruitment of talented researchers “easily and cost-effectively”.54

53.Many witnesses told us that the Government must provide clear and repeated messages to reassure current and potential students, EU citizens working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the families of these workers, that they are of great value to the UK’s science community and that they will be able to continue studying and working here after the UK has left the EU. Mr Phil Smith, Chairman of UK & Ireland at Cisco, told us, “we need to make sure that this short-term uncertainty does not force people to start thinking about other things. At the moment we need clarity and simplicity”.55

54.The Government has made a number of announcements since the EU referendum. In a speech at the Wellcome Trust on 30 June, Jo Johnson MP stated:

“We remain fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU. We hugely value the contribution of EU and international staff. And there are no immediate changes to their rights to live and work in the UK.”56

55.This positive speech by the Minister contrasts with the widely publicised Conservative Party Conference speech by the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP, who set out the means by which she would reduce net migration. She pledged to “look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers”.57 She also set out plans to consider whether student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.58

56.Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, was reported to have called on the Government in July to issue a statement to reassure EU citizens that they will be able to continue working in the UK.59 On 10 October, the Prime Minister said: “I expect to be able to guarantee the legal rights of EU nationals already in the UK, so long as the British nationals living in Europe—countries who are member states—receive the same treatment.”60

57.We pressed Jo Johnson MP on when the Government would give further reassurances to EU nationals wanting to work or study in STEM subjects in the UK. He told us:

“It is important that we have an ability to attract the brightest and best … We completely agree with you on the need to send out a positive message in that respect … [T]hese are decisions which have to be sequenced very carefully in the context of the broader national interest at stake in the whole of the negotiation. We understand that science is global, that there are huge benefits from our ability to bring in brilliant scientists, technicians, and so on, to work in this country, and we want that to continue.”61

58.We welcome Jo Johnson MP’s reassurance but we find the Home Secretary’s attitude towards student immigration less than helpful. We reiterate the recommendations we made in our 2014 report, International STEM students that:

59.In the light of the EU referendum, the need for Government action on this issue is all the more pressing and the Home Secretary’s speech deeply worrying. Whilst recognising that immigration is a highly politically charged issue, we would remind the Government that the public’s views on immigration are more nuanced than newspaper headlines might suggest. We urge the Government in the strongest possible terms to take action.

60.In the short term the Government should send repeated signals to the global science community that the UK remains a welcoming place for talented scientists.

61.We recommend that the Government, through its global science and innovation network, or the British Council, should perform annual surveys around the world assessing the UK’s reputation in the global scientific community as a welcoming place to pursue a scientific career. The results of these surveys should be published.

Attracting talent

62.The importance to the UK of attracting and retaining talented researchers and workers in the field of science was emphasised by many of our witnesses.

63.Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told us that, “The UK has been successful in science and innovation because it attracts excellent talent from overseas.”62 The British Council told us the UK needs to remain innovative to be globally competitive and “that requires drawing on global rather than just national talent and resources”.63

64.The Minister agreed that it was important for the UK to attract the brightest and best in the field of science and that, “Our ability to be part of this global market for the most highly talented is a crucial part of our ability to continue to generate the extraordinary returns we see on our science expenditure.”64

65.The EU referendum result and mixed messages from the Government may well undermine the shared ambitions of the Government and the research community to welcome talented scientists to the UK. We therefore recommend that the Government should take decisive steps to promote the UK as a first class location for research careers and an attractive partner for international collaboration. Some components of this global initiative are already in place and need only be enhanced in scale and emphasis. Actions the Government might take which we have identified in the course of our private deliberations include:

66.The expansion of these programmes should be subject to the rigorous review and value for money appraisals that apply to existing research funding.

67.But the expansion of existing programmes is not enough. At the highest levels in the world of science, it is not sufficient for the UK just to permit the world’s most accomplished scientists to work in the UK. The UK must search for these scientists and persuade them to pursue careers here. These scientific leaders may well be magnets for investment by international businesses and not for profit organisations.

68.The evidence we received set out many of the challenges facing UK science after the EU referendum. In the following paragraph we outline a scheme to attract outstanding scientific leaders to the UK which we would ask the Government to consider. The scheme draws upon our collective experience of science, business and academia, and we believe that it would help both to tackle the challenges identified in the evidence and to make progress towards the desired end point of UK science flourishing post-Brexit.

69.We recommend that the Government asks National Academies and the new UKRI to search the globe for outstanding scientific leaders, and attract them to the UK with compelling offers of research funding for their first 10 years in the UK and support for their immediate families as they settle into the UK. This initiative should receive resources beyond the existing science and research budget to ensure that it does not undermine support for the existing UK science community.


44 Science and Technology Committee, EU membership and UK science (2nd Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 127), para 244

45 British Future, What next after Brexit? Immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain (August 2016): http://www.britishfuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/What-next-after-Brexit.pdf [accessed 23 November 2016]

46 Written evidence from the British Council (EUF0012) and Scientists for EU Campaign (EUF0011)

47 Q 6 (Prof Alex Halliday)

48 Q 22 (Prof Sir David Greenaway)

49 Q 22 (Prof David Phoenix OBE)

50 Q 25 (Dr Patrick Vallance)

51 Q 48 (Jo Johnson MP)

52 Q 2 (Lord Stern of Brentford)

53 Written evidence from the Publishers Association (EUF0013)

54 Written evidence from Cancer Research UK (EUF0003)

55 Q 44 (Phil Smith)

56 Jo Johnson MP, Speech on leading the world in the new age of global science, 30 June 2016: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/leading-the-world-in-the-new-age-of-global-science [accessed 8 November 2016]

57 Amber Rudd, Speech at the Conservative Party Conference 2016, 4 October 2016: http://press.conservatives.com/post/151334637685/rudd-speech-to-conservative-party-conference-2016 [accessed 14 November 2016]

58 Ibid.

59 ‘No evidence of Brexit ‘penalties’ for science, says Royal Society president’, The Telegraph (26 July 2016): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/26/no-evidence-of-brexit-penalties-for-science-says-
royal-society-p/
[accessed 8 November 2016]

60 ‘David Davis warns EU leaders not to go ahead with ‘punishment plan’ for Britain’, The Telegraph (10 October 2016): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/10/theresa-may-brexit-talks-denmark-netherlands-live/ [accessed 8 November 2016]

61 Q 50 (Jo Johnson MP)

62 Q 2 (Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell)

63 Written evidence from the British Council (EUF0012)

64 Q 50 (Jo Johnson MP)




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