Theresa May has made two substantial commitments to science and innovation: an additional £2 billion a year for research; and including them among her 12 priorities in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
We share the prime minister’s vision of the UK as an innovative, outward-facing country. Science is a global endeavour and the UK’s collaborative spirit helps ensure that it punches well above its weight: we have only 1 per cent of the world’s population but produce 16 per cent of the most cited research papers. Scientists from overseas make up a significant proportion of this fantastically productive ecosystem.
So we need to address two issues if we are to make the UK an even more attractive place for the finest scientists to work. First, we need a simple immigration system for researchers and skilled technicians. Researchers who come to the UK from the EU with firm job offers from accredited institutions should not have to complete a visa application before they reach us. With the right sponsorship arrangements it is probably unnecessary to cap the numbers of such highly skilled people. It’s also imperative that our universities remain open and welcoming to overseas students.
Second, British researchers need access to funding that allows them to collaborate with the best scientists in the world. Since its launch in 2007, the €13 billion provided by the European Research Council has transformed our ability to collaborate with people from other countries. After Brexit has taken place, researchers must be able to access this EU funding or an alternative scheme of similar stature, preferably established in partnership with other nations.
Ministers must provide as much certainty as possible for researchers over the next few years. We have already heard concerns from the researchers we fund: since the Brexit vote the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, where UK-based researchers sequenced a third of the human genome, has seen a near 50 per cent drop in PhD applications from non-British EU nationals.
Last year Wellcome and Cancer Research UK invested £1.2 billion in UK life sciences for the benefit of patients. We invest here because of the the country’s readiness to embrace new ideas from people across the world. With the right supporting measures, Brexit can create opportunities to build on the UK’s historic strengths in science and innovation. Working with government and others, we must ensure that these opportunities are realised.
This comment article first appeared in The Times on 26 January 2017.