The British scientific community has been pretty gloomy of late, racked with worries about Brexit. But perhaps the new Global Talent visa will provide some scope for optimism.
The new fast-track visa scheme appears to be aimed at attracting world-class scientists, researchers and mathematicians.
At present, EU researchers make up around half of the UK’s scientific workforce of 211,000 people. The new system has no cap on the number of people that can enter the UK, and the eligibility has been widened. Here's the full Government announcement.
Home Secretary Priti Patel may describe this as "decisive action" but fortunately the new visa system - which will begin on February 20 - will be managed by UK Research and Innovation Agency (UKRI) rather than her Home Office.
The thinking is that applicants can be reviewed by people qualified to assess their scientific credentials, thus enabling UK-based research projects to recruit the best scientists and mathematicians. Better to have research organisations vouching for scientific attainment than Home Office officials.
The BBC described the announcement as "a big win for research organisations" and quotes Royal Society president Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan as saying that "it sends out a positive message that the UK is committed to remaining open to overseas science talent who would collaborate with our outstanding home-grown minds."
Of course, this announcement is not without critics and sceptics. The Lib Dems described as little more than a gimmick. For one thing, they say, the cap on the current one has never been hit. So is this just Brexit-washing?
Some question whether this new system - with its focus on the "most talented" - may actually restrict the entry of young, promising researchers in the early stages of their careers.
But Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the government, has welcomed the announcement in Nature, saying that the scheme will allow UK-based researchers to recruit overseas talent to their teams. "Attracting the best international scientists at all career stages is an important part of the government’s strategy to boost research and development," he says. "This first phase of changes goes a long way towards ensuring that the United Kingdom remains a global leader in science excellence."
That's also the view of Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Quoted in Science Business, he says: “Crucially, [it] enables UK-based researchers to recruit international team members from across the world."
Simon Jenkins gets pretty angry about it: "the Cult of Science," he fulminates in The Guardian, "has been an obsession since the 1979 general election." Despite it, we haven't achieved enough scientific advances by ourselves. Now, he asks, "by what right does Britain slam the door on “untalented” economic migrants from the world’s poorer countries, while boasting it will raid their reserves of scientific talent? The NHS already devastates the medical graduate pools of India and Africa. Now Britain is to poach whatever scientists they have left."
However, the views of professional opinionists like Jenkins are in the minority. "This is a very important step for global collaborations," enthused Magdalena Skipper, editor in chief at Nature.
Scientists generally have been deeply concerned by Brexit. But as Alice Gast, president of Imperial College notes in her letter to the Times, "withdrawal from the European Union need not mean scientific isolation. Well-crafted policies can help to grow Britain’s scientific influence. The government’s new Global Talent visas show how Britain can continue to welcome first-rate researchers, backed by British, European and global funding agencies." Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, described it as an important announcement for the competitiveness of UK research.
“At present, 44% of science, engineering and technology firms report difficulties in finding recruits with the right skills," notes Patrick Cusworth, head of policy at the Institute of Physics. "There remains a real need to continue to enable and support people with the right skills and experience to live and work in the UK. Developing a pragmatic means of doing so is therefore a big step in the right direction.”
So, get this under way. Then sort out Britain's role in the EU's Horizon research funding programme. Keep a beady eye on the pace of consultation at UKRI on how it plans to reduce bureaucracy and to simplify funding application processes. And, as Russ Shaw argues, keep pace with France on tech visas where President Macron's latest version - renewable after four years and allowing holders to change companies within France - is proving very successful.
More on the Global Talent visa here - and at World Class Britain would welcome your thoughts about what needs to be done to maintain and enhance Britain's science base. (But please don't just say 'it would be better if Brexit wasn't happening'.)