The immigration cap: victories for geek campaigning, but the damage lives on

If you want to understand the absurdities of the UK immigration system, and how they affect science, you could start by going to the Jobcentre Plus website and searching for vacancies in Hinxton — a small village near Cambridge.

At the time of writing, you’ll find advertisements for a nursery nurse, a relief security officer, and an electrician’s mate. And you’ll also find a few other positions with a more rarified skill set.

There’s a vacancy for a staff scientist, for example, who “will be expected to design and implement analysis pipelines to carry out population genetics and association analyses of rare and common genetic variants SNPs, sequence variants and CNVs in population cohorts across sub-Saharan Africa.”

There’s also a great opportunity for a high-throughput software developer, who will “build web user-interfaces for lab-tracking and analysis systems”.

These jobs are available in rural Cambridgeshire because they’re staff posts at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, one of the world’s leading genome sequencing centres, which is based in Hinxton. They’re not the sort of roles that you’d expect to be filled by people browsing the JobCentre — and they never are.

Between July 2009 and September 2010, indeed, the Sanger Institute advertised 91 vacancies this way (see para 38 in the link). The number of applications, never mind new staff hired? Zero.

The only reason why a world-leading technology went to the hassle of advertising its vacancies like this was because it was a legal obligation. Under the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT), any employer who might potentially wish to recruit from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) had first to advertise the vacancy in a JobCentre Plus. Even if the post was totally unsuitable.

It was a prime example of the way  in which the UK’s immigration system introduced absurd requirements that are detrimental to British science. There was the expense and the extra workload of organising these ads, plus also delay in appointing suitable candidates while the Institute waited for replies from the JobCentre that were never going to come.

The Government, thankfully, has finally seen sense. Under a “statement of intent” published by the Home Office last week, most PhD-level scientific jobs are to be partially exempted from the RMLT: the jobs must still be advertised in the UK, but not necessarily in a JobCentre Plus.

It’s one of a string of concessions on immigration that scientific organisations like the Wellcome Trust (disclosure: I’m its Head of Communications) and the Campaign for Science and Engineering have won since the coalition announced its plans for a cap two years ago. On salary levels required for scientific immigrants, settlement rights at the end of a visa, and now on the RMLT, compelling advocacy has encouraged ministers to back down again and again.

Such concessions, however, should never have been necessary, and the fact that they were illustrates one of the themes of The Geek Manifesto — that an indifference towards science, and a lack of experience of research practice, leads politicians into unforced errors of judgement again and again.

Only one of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons has had a career as a PhD level scientist, and there are no more than a few dozen more who can be said to be actively engaged with science. And it shows in the decisions politicians take on issues such as the immigration cap.

Anyone who has worked in science, or who has much experience of it, is well aware that research is now an international game, in which the best labs must recruit talent from all over the world to compete. With a little knowledge of science, you’d also know that most postdoctoral researchers earn significantly less than the salary levels that would have been required to secure a visa under the cap regime that was initially proposed.

The misguided and potentially highly damagine visa squeeze on science was proposed not because the Government wanted to put British research at a disadvantage, but because it didn’t realise that its policies would have this effect. Ministers hadn’t even thought about the consequences.

This is one of the many reasons why it’s so important for those of us who do care about science to stand up for it properly in the political realm. It’s also a good reason why we should be doing more to encourage the election of more MPs with a scientific background of some sort, and to appraise those without one who make it to the Commons of the importance of understanding how science really works.

It would also be a mistake to think that just because some of the most damaging impacts of government immigration policy on science have been avoided, that no damage at all has been done.

Leaving aside the opportunity cost of the campaigning that has been required to reverse proposals that ought never to have been made, there has been a significant negative effect on Britain’s reputation as a destination of choice for the world’s best scientists.

David Willetts, the Science Minister, might say that Government’s policies will make Britain “the best place in the world to do science”, but the way it has handled the immigration issue has sent out a different message entirely. It has almost seemed as if the UK is happy to admit non-EEA scientists only if it absolutely has to.

Not exactly what we want talented researchers to hear when they’re weighing up whether to pursue their careers in the UK or in rivals such as the United States, France and Germany.


About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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4 Responses to The immigration cap: victories for geek campaigning, but the damage lives on

  1. It doesn’t just *seem* as if “the UK is happy to admit non-EEA scientists only if it absolutely has to” – those are the actual rules. You have to show that your non-EEA applicant was the *only* applicant who met the criteria (their being the *best* applicant for the job is not sufficient). This means we have to go to ridiculous lengths to craft the job specifications to be sufficiently malleable as to allow us to make that claim in defence of hiring a non-EEA scientist. Even so, we have had occasions where, having selected the best applicant – who happens to be non-EEA – we have had to readvertise the job with new specifications so as to catch only that person and not the ones the rules say we have to have. It’s insane, and a waste of everyone’s time. Science is an international and highly competitive enterprise and you have to hire the best people on the planet, not the nearest ones. I agree it’s appalling that our rule-makers have so few scientists among their numbers, and so little understanding of how science works.

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