Free movement of scientists must be maintained after Brexit, warns Wellcome Sanger Institute

PUBLISHED: 00:24 12 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:09 12 July 2018

The Wellcome Sanger Institute at the Genome Campus, Hinxton. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Wellcome Sanger Institute at the Genome Campus, Hinxton. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

Research will suffer if immigration arrangements are too restrictive, says world leader in genome research

The Wellcome Sanger Institute at Hinxton has issued a warning over immigration arrangements. Picture: Keith HeppellThe Wellcome Sanger Institute at Hinxton has issued a warning over immigration arrangements. Picture: Keith Heppell

The free movement of scientists must be retained after Brexit or vital research will suffer, the Wellcome Sanger Institute has warned the government.

The institute in Hinxton – a world leader in genome research – employs staff from more than 50 countries and collaborates internationally on its work.

Some 38 per cent of its highly-skilled staff are from countries within the European Economic Area (EEA) – compared to 34 per cent from the UK and 28 per cent from the rest of the world.

The institute has called for the abolition of immigration caps and the safeguarding of free movement in its evidence and recommendations to an inquiry run by the UK Parliament Science and Technology Committee.

Dr Sarion Bowers, Welcome Sanger InstituteDr Sarion Bowers, Welcome Sanger Institute

Julia Wilson, associate director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “The field of genomics has taken a central position in guiding and transforming the future of healthcare research in this country; however if we can’t bring in the brightest and the best minds, research is going to suffer. We are strongly calling for the free movement of scientists after Brexit.”

It has warned that the current immigration system, with its lengthy and complex visa requirements, is not fit for purpose and advises that it is not transposed onto EEA nationals when the UK leaves the European Union.

Sarion Bowers, policy lead at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Science is not a zero sum game; we will either succeed together or fail together. Negotiations on immigration after Brexit should consider that restrictions on the movement of scientists are damaging, not only to UK science and innovation, but also that of the collaborator’s country.”

Genomics – the study of the structure, function, evolution, mapping and editing of DNA – has become a scientific priority for the government.

Julia Wilson, of Wellcome Sanger Institute. Picture: Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research LtdJulia Wilson, of Wellcome Sanger Institute. Picture: Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd

The world-famous Sanger Institute sits at the heart of the global network of scientists involved in genomics.

Within the last year alone, its achievements include uncovering new clues about undiagnosed childhood diseases, finding the genetic secret behind the multi-drug resistant typhoid sweeping through Pakistan, and publishing groundbreaking studies on malaria after conducting the largest-ever genetic study of mosquitoes, which are becoming increasingly resistant to insecticide.

It is also working on an extraordinary Human Cell Atlas that will provide an open resource to help diagnose, monitor and treat disease.

The institute was recently named as a key site for Health Data Research UK, the national institute for data science in healthcare, along with the University of Cambridge and the European Bioinformatics Institute, also sited on the Wellcome Genome Campus.

Prime Minister Theresa May at Wellcome Trust Genome Campus at Hinxton last year. Picture: Sanger Institute, Genome Research LtdPrime Minister Theresa May at Wellcome Trust Genome Campus at Hinxton last year. Picture: Sanger Institute, Genome Research Ltd

And the Sanger Institute will be carrying out whole genome sequencing of 50,000 volunteers in the UK Biobank initiative, funded by a £30million grant from the Medical Research Council, during 2018 and 2019. This will create the world’s most detailed whole genome database and accelerate research into a wide range of diseases that cause disability and premature death in mid to later life.

But Brexit is already having a tangible impact on such pioneering work.

Giving evidence to the committee, Louise Wren, a policy manager at the Wellcome Trust, which provides core funding to the Sanger Institute, said: “Our early career schemes were down about 14 per cent in the last year for EU applicants, and our researchers tell us that they are having to repeat recruitment processes because they are really struggling to attract applicants from the EU.”

The Sanger Institute has reported “a significant and sustained drop in applications” for its PhD program from EU countries since the referendum.

The Sanger Institute employs staff from more than 50 countries.
Picture: Keith HeppellThe Sanger Institute employs staff from more than 50 countries. Picture: Keith Heppell

Some candidates have cited Brexit as a reason for declining offers of work at the institute – and the number of staff from EEA countries who resigned in the six months after the referendum was twice that of the six months before.

The institute told the committee: “A deal with Europe must ensure that scientists are able to move between the EU and the UK with minimum cost and bureaucracy in a speedy manner. Projects are often fixed-term, typically lasting three-five years. Delays recruiting staff to these projects simply mean valuable science does not get done. This is a scientific loss, but where funding has come from a UK research council, and objectives have not been fulfilled, it is also a loss to the UK taxpayer.

“The UK cannot afford to be viewed as grudgingly allowing scientists to come to this country. Instead we should be embracing international scientists with open arms and using our science to build powerful relationships with our friends and keep diplomatic doors open with others. The UK’s science thrives on collaboration and diversity.”

And it warned that the need extends beyond scientists.

38% of the highly-skille staff at the Wellcome Sanger Institute are from countries in the European Economic Area, outside of the UK. Picture: Keith Heppell38% of the highly-skille staff at the Wellcome Sanger Institute are from countries in the European Economic Area, outside of the UK. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The UK is desperately short of software developers, and organisations like the Sanger Institute are in constant need.

“We often dedicate significant resources to recruitment and/or development of talented staff and students. If those individuals are not able to remain after the end of the project, it is the UK who loses.

“A deal with Europe should seek to ensure that the talent we have invested in can remain in the UK,” the institute told the committee.

It concluded: “Preventing talented scientists, software developers and bioinformaticians from coming to this country only damages our science and undermines the vision the Government has laid out for the life sciences.”

The committee’s inquiry was set up to investigate how to create an immigration system that works for science and innovation.

It will draft proposals to put to the government, which rejected its call for an ‘early deal’ for science and innovation ahead of the conclusions of the Migration Advisory Committee, which is due to publish its report later this year. The findings will inform an Immigration Bill in 2019.

The Wellcome Sanger Institute’s recommendations

The Sanger institute’s recommendations to the committee are:

■ Safeguarding the free movement of all scientists across the EEA to ensure international collaborations continue.

■ Ensuring individuals from the EEA who hold job offers, grants or fellowships with a UK sponsor can move to the UK with their families without restriction, for as long as they are in post, or for the duration of their funding.

■ Giving time for students from EEA countries who have completed undergraduate qualifications in the UK to remain in the UK to look for work, in line with a pilot scheme for graduates from the rest of the world.

■ Placing software developers on the shortage occupation list for all sectors.

■ Encouraging short-term mobility with light-touch checks for academics holding posts in other countries to allow them to visit UK institutions for periods of days to a few months – including students and those undertaking internships. ■ Removing salary thresholds from immigration requirements for all those involved within the scientific research sector, particularly those addressing national skills shortages.

■ Abolishing immigration caps, especially where applicants are applying through priority Standard Occupational Classification (SoC) codes and shortage occupations routes.

■ Excluding students from immigration numbers.

‘Deeply counterproductive’ tier 2 visa caps also adversely affecting science community

It is not just Brexit that is affecting the recruitment of scientists and other skilled staff at the Sanger Institute.

Tier 2 visa caps that limit the number of skilled workers from outside the European Union who can enter the UK may finally have been lifted for doctors and nurses but are still affecting the science and technology community.

More than 1,600 scientists and engineers were denied visas in the space of four months from December 2017, according to data released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Sanger Institute’s postdoctoral research fellows are paid £31,000-£39,000, which places them in the bracket affected by the cap.

“Such arbitrary thresholds show no recognition of the skills needs of this country,” warned the institute. “We can only describe these caps as damaging, deeply counterproductive and in no way in the national interest.

“These problems have harmed the reputation of the UK as a good place to do science.

“Despite being in desperate need, we have had to stop considering applications from candidates who would require a tier 2 visa. These candidates are often highly talented and desperately needed but are rejected because even where we successfully obtain a visa for that individual there is a high risk of significant expense and delay.”

Case study: It took a year and a half to recruit software developer as visa was twice refused

The Sanger Institute spent one and a half years recruiting to the post of software developer for a time-sensitive large-scale project supporting its work monitoring the global spread of infectious diseases, after a visa was twice refused for a candidate from India.

As a result of the delays caused by the tier 2 visa cap, part of the project to support the infection genomics programme – aimed at understanding the genetics of parasitic infections – was simply not done.

The individual met the extensive criteria required by immigration rules, but the Sanger Institute’s application for a certificate of sponsorship was turned down because the immigration cap had been met.

When the six-month recruitment time limit within the immigration criteria expired, and with no end to the visa cap in sight, the institute had to withdraw the offer.

“The group leader involved in this recruitment stated that in his opinion the institute’s reputation had been damaged,” the institute told the government.

In numbers

■ One fifth of the Sanger Institute’s 1,000 scientists, support staff and PhD students are non-UK European Economic Area nationals, with 12% from the rest of the world

■ 38% of the Sanger Institute’s highly-skilled workers are from other EEA countries, 34% are from the UK and 28% are from the rest of the world.

■ 30% of group leaders are non-UK European Economic Area nationals

■ There has been a 40% decline in prospective PhD students from the EEA in 2017-18 compared to 2016.

Read more

UK life sciences contribute more than £30bn to economy, report for AstraZeneca finds

Independent Economic Review considers region’s future with no magical thinking to distort the facts

Wellcome Sanger Institute scientists uncover secret of multi-drug resistant typhoid sweeping through Pakistan

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