Science & Environment

Call for cap on migrant scientists to be scrapped

Ribosome (MRC)
Image caption Indian-born Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan could have been refused entry under current rules

The president of the Royal Society has called for a cap on non-EU migrants, introduced by the coalition government, to be scrapped.

Lord Martin Rees said the quota system for highly qualified people was damaging academia.

Currently, employers are limited in the number of non-EU nationals they can employ.

Interim limits were introduced in July 2010, with permanent limits set to be introduced in April 2011.

Together with other leading scientists, Lord Rees feels that one of the UK's major strengths is that it can attract leading scientists from all over the world, and not just the EU.

He added: "I'm guessing something will be done - the consequences of this were not foreseen."

Elite sportspeople, such as Premier League footballers, benefit from a blanket exemption to these caps. This has left scientists bemused as to why premier scientists cannot benefit from exemptions.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, said: "This seems like a PR issue for the UK.

"It would be very bad press for the government if the next Ronaldo couldn't get into the country.

"But what about if the next Nobel Prize winner couldn't get in? We will ruin our world reputation if we put up a no-entry sign on the UK."

Professor Malcolm Grant, President of University College London, said: "Researchers of this calibre are highly mobile. If scientists have difficulty gaining entry to the UK, they will simply take their talent elsewhere."

Figures from the Campaign for Science and Engineering suggest that more than 10% of academic scientists are currently non-EU nationals.

In addition, at least 40% of the UK's scientific output involves short-term collaboration with non-EU scientists.

It has been suggested that these have already been hit by the immigration curbs.

Professor Sir Andy Haines, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "We have already had problems with senior academic visitors, where their visas for short visits have been refused, or they have been so delayed visits were not possible. Current rules are limiting academic exchange."

According to the Office of National Statistics, 5,000 fewer visas for highly skilled migrant workers were issued in the first quarter of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009 - down by more than 40%.

The Home Office, when asked what plans for the cap were, and whether there would be exemptions for scientists, issued a statement: "This government believes that Britain can benefit from migration but not uncontrolled migration

"We have consulted with business and other interested parties on how the limit should work. These consultations are now closed and we will announce the findings in due course."