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Why the Government needs to do more to attract international researchers

Emma Cattermole
by Emma Cattermole | Opinion

22 January 2024

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Cancer Research UK-funded scientists working in a lab at the Francis Crick Institute
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Almost half of the Crick's staff come from outside the UK. © Jane Stockdale for Cancer Research UK


No border has ever held back cancer. And no country will beat the disease on its own. The difficulty of diagnosing and treating cancers comes down to the fact they move, change and diversify. They present a challenge we can’t overcome without equally diverse and agile research.  

In other words, to beat cancer sooner, the UK must be part of a global effort. Our research environment needs access to the brightest minds from around the world, and it needs to connect with the international collaborations that are best equipped to tackle complex scientific problems.

Helpfully, the UK has a track record of spearheading global research, with a host of leading scientific institutions and a long history of attracting some of the world’s best scientists. 

Now, though, that’s at risk.  

The global competition for talented scientists

Today, researchers from outside the UK that want to contribute to our outstanding scientific legacy face some of the highest immigration costs in the world, and the UK Government is increasing them further. Leading international researchers pay more to come here than they would to go to other attractive research nations, like the US, Canada and places in Europe.

What’s more, because of Brexit, expensive visa fees now apply to EU and EEA based researchers as well. More than three quarters of respondents to our recent survey of UK cancer researchers have faced difficulties in recruitment and retention due to the new UK-EU relationship. 

There’s a global competition for talent, and we’re losing out. 

That affects more than our global standing. Our local capabilities are dependent on our global connections. The Francis Crick Institute is one of the UK’s flagship biomedical centres, and 44% of its staff are from outside the country. On a wider scale, the 2022 UK Research and Innovation Workforce survey found that over half of respondents had worked in other parts of the world. Moving between countries helps develop researchers, who are exposed to multiple different types of training and accumulate a broad set of skills and ideas. When they come to the UK, they’re ready to help us tackle the toughest questions in cancer.  

The benefits of attracting international researchers are clear, but if we keep putting barriers in their way, we risk losing everything they bring.

The Government has ambitions for the UK to be a leading science nation, and as part of this wants to add 380,000 more researchers and technicians to the workforce. This can’t be achieved by boosting domestic talent alone. We have to put ourselves in position to recruit from a global pool.

International researchers help train homegrown ones, and they tend to bring vital connections from their previous experience abroad. That makes it easier for their research teams in the UK to instigate international collaborations, strengthening UK research and boosting our reputation on the global stage. Tellingly, more than 60% of the Cancer Research UK-funded research published in the last 5 years involved international collaboration, and evidence shows this makes research more impactful.  

The public sees the benefit, too. Our polling has shown that 73% support the UK Government making it easier for researchers to come to the UK for work.  

What’s stopping international researchers coming to the UK?

The UK’s immigration costs are either fronted by individuals – who often can’t afford to pay them – or by research organisations, which have a limited amount of funding available for lifesaving cancer research. 

Despite its ambition to make the UK a leading science nation, over the past year, the Government has made changes to immigration rules that risk making the situation even worse.

Immigration costs: In October, the Government increased the fees for work and study visas by 15% and 20%, respectively. The Immigration Health Surcharge – which researchers must pay to access NHS services, in addition to any usual income taxes – will also increase by 66% in the Spring. This means it will cost £5,890 for a single researcher to come on a 5-year Global Talent Visa, and £20,980 if they bring three family members. These costs, which must be paid upfront for all years of a visa, risk putting researchers off altogether, and, even if they don’t, research organisations may struggle to cover the increase.  

Minimum salary thresholds: The Skilled Worker Visa is widely used by researchers and research organisations. The Government recently announced that its minimum salary threshold will increase from £26,200 to £38,700 in the spring. Vital technician and research assistant roles often have salaries below this new threshold, which means it is likely to impact recruitment. 

Changes for dependents: The minimum income for people to allow their families to join them is increasing (initially to £29,000, then to £38,700) and international students can no longer bring dependents, unless on postgraduate research courses. While it’s unlikely the ban will affect research students specifically, other international students are a vital source of cross-subsidy for fragile university research funding, and this may reduce the numbers that come. 

Graduate route: The Government are commissioning a review to the graduate route, which may bring further changes to the overall research environment. This is a key route for cancer research, as it can bridge the gap which often arises for researchers between degrees, or before starting a postdoc position, allowing us to retain talent that our universities have put effort into training. If this route is restricted, it may limit students’ abilities to stay on after their studies, so we could risk losing talent. 

 

In the face of these difficulties, the government has highlighted the Global Talent Visa (GTV) as the key to attracting and retaining international researchers.

The GTV was introduced in 2020 as a dedicated route for researchers. This was a positive step in attracting the talent we need to deliver world class cancer research, as it doesn’t have a minimum salary requirement and gives the best and brightest the freedom to change jobs and bring dependents.  

But there are still challenges: 

The GTV is not insulated from the cost increases: These researchers still face the increasing upfront visa fees and Immigration Health Surcharge. 

There’s not enough awareness of it: For the GTV to attract great researchers from around the world, the Government needs to do more to advertise and explain it. Currently, researchers and research organisations aren’t clear who meets the definition of ‘global talent’. 

Some adjustments may also be needed to the GTV application process and eligibility requirements to make it accessible to all the researchers and roles we need. 

How can we attract more talent?

Simply put, the UK can’t be a leading science nation if it can’t attract leading researchers. The Government must change course to ensure it doesn’t put its own targets out of reach. 

With a UK General Election likely this year, we have set out our recommendations for the next Government in Longer, better lives: our manifesto for cancer research and care. Crucially, it includes a plan to make the immigration system is more affordable, straightforward and accessible for researchers – ensuring the UK is more welcoming to international talent. 

And this week we’ve published a further paper with more detail on how the UK Government can act on issues that impact cancer researchers. It’s a roadmap for attracting international talent, creating an equal and diverse workforce, and making careers more supportive. We know that people are at the heart of cancer research, so to beat cancer sooner, we need to enable bright minds to thrive. To find out more about how the UK can address these issues, read our report on Strengthening the UK research workforce to beat cancer.  

As one of the UK’s leading research bodies, we will also continue to investigate the impact of these recent visa changes on our research community, and share our insights to increase Government awareness of the consequences for research. 

Emma Cattermole

Emma Cattermole

Emma is a policy advisor in Cancer Research UK’s science policy team.

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