02 Jul 2020   |   News

UK to set up new office to attract scientists post-Brexit

‘Office for Talent’ aims to make it easier for leading foreign researchers to work in the UK

Brexit

The UK government is setting up a cross-departmental ‘Office for Talent’ to encourage leading scientists live and work in the UK in post-Brexit.

The new office, billed as making it “easier for leading global scientists, researchers and innovators to come to the UK,” was announced as part of an R&D roadmap published this week.

Amongst its duties, the Talent Office will review “the effectiveness of the current rules” and “ensure excellent customer service across the immigration system”, so that it is “simple, easy, and quick”.

Setting up the office follows on from the launch of a new global fast-track visa scheme in January 2020.

The R&D roadmap also says that from next summer foreign students who complete a PhD in the UK can stay for a further three years.

The announcement sends “a welcome signal that the UK is open to researchers from around the world,” said Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Other scientists characterised it as an attempt to lessen the harmful impact for researchers of leaving the EU. The “welcome aspirations” now have to be “transmuted into substance” said Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society and emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University.

The UK has to “overcome handicaps induced by recent government policies,” Rees said. “Brexit and its associated rhetoric made the UK seem less welcoming to top talent from abroad. And the increasingly pervasive audit culture has rendered university careers less attractive,” he said.

Medical research charities meanwhile complained that the R&D roadmap does not address their appeal to co-fund a £620 million relief fund to help them weather the 41 per cent fall in incomes they have suffered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aisling Burnand, chief executive of Association of Medical Research Charities, a body representing 160 charities that between them put £1.9 billion into R&D in 2019, said it was unclear how the roadmap, “will help ease the urgent need for support. The plight currently faced by charitable medical research remains real and present,” she said.

The government has injected £750 million into charities during the pandemic, but this money has gone to charities providing frontline services, and has not made its way to medical research.

BARPA trial

Other elements in the roadmap include a plan to provide an extra £300 million to upgrade labs across the country, to boost research on climate change and disease prevention.

The announcement comes on top of £280 million in low interest loans that will be provided to universities to cover the costs of equipment and salaries.

An Innovation Expert Group will be created to review and “improve how the government supports research, from idea-stage right through to product development.”

The government pledges “moonshot” research projects, and lays out the criteria for choosing which big problems they should address.

The moonshots should inspire the public; help solve an important societal issue; be truly ground-breaking; focus on areas where major breakthroughs are feasible; be specific and well-defined, with a clear timeframe for completion; and take advantage of areas where the UK is, or is poised to be, a world leader, the roadmap says.

The government restates its intention to trial a funding body for advanced research, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which claims credit for technologies including the global positioning system and the internet. The government says it would spend £800 million over five years to set up the agency.

There’s also a commitment in the roadmap to “meet any funding shortfall and put in place alternative schemes” if the UK cannot negotiate its way into future EU research programmes. The UK has previously committed to paying its way into Horizon Europe, unless the EU blocks its path.

“Our participation in EU research programmes has benefited everyone and it is good to see the government’s renewed commitment to continuing that fruitful association,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society.

Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, welcomed the recognition by the government of the importance of participation in EU research programmes and the need for the UK to be open to scientific talent from around the world. “For this to come to fruition, there needs to be a concerted government effort to change its rhetoric to be more welcoming, to fully embrace the future and think less about the past, and to engage the many young people and scientists who were overwhelmingly against Brexit, Nurse said.

Currently, the UK gets around £850 million of research funding each year from EU programmes. Scientists have repeatedly warned that leaving the EU, particularly with no deal to continue research collaboration, would do lasting harm to UK science.

The government also reaffirmed its goal to raise investment in R&D from 1.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, and to more than double the current budget to £22 billion by 2024–25.

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