Immigration and the Future of British Science

A guest article by Daniel Villar


Science, like socialism, is an internationalist project. Just as we can only combat capitalism by having international solidarity with fellow workers across the globe, the pursuit of scientific knowledge is impossible in only one nation state. This has been acknowledged since the very beginning of our subject, when the “invisible academy” spread across Europe, uniting natural philosophers from warring states in order to create science as we know it today. Since those early days, science has become ever more international — scarce is the lab where multiple nationalities aren’t represented, and most labs collaborate with others in other borders. That science is an inherently international and collaborative process is well known to those of us who practice it, but sadly it appears that many of those in government are still beholden to 19th century myths of science being the work of individual geniuses of individual nations, working for the greater glory of their country. This is sadly reflected in the proposed post-Brexit immigration policies proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The United Kingdom punches well above its weight when it comes to science; in spite of being a relatively small country, Britain is home to some of the most highly ranked research universities on earth, and has more Nobel laurates than any other country on earth save America. But what is less well known is that much of this work is done by immigrants. 2/5 of the staff that work in scientific fields are immigrants to the UK, and the majority of PhD students in the UK are immigrants. On paper, there is a system whereby skilled scientists can remain in the UK, both during their postgraduate studies, and in the start-up of their careers. The new immigration plans proposed by Johnson keep the Tier 4 visa which anyone with an offer from a British university, including for PhD, is eligible for. It also includes 20 points in the visa for those with science PhDs, and lowers the minimum income required to immigrate to the UK on a work visa to £20,500, more in line with the low salaries that most scientists have at the start of their career.

On paper these new immigration guidelines are an improvement on the current system and could perhaps help make scientific life in Britain more international. But first looks are deceiving. In surveys of early career scientists, one of the greatest barriers stated to immigration to the UK isn’t just the current high salary requirement to come into the country anyhow, but the high cost involved in getting a visa to the UK. The UK is one of the most expensive countries on earth to immigrate to, with the costs of applying to visas and health surcharges running in the thousands of pounds—and that is if you are immigrating on your own. Add to that the cost of bringing a family along, and it could easily cost thousands of pounds just to move here. And then, if you by chance get further funding for your research or get a new position, you have to reapply for the visas at great expense. By comparison, the next most expensive country to apply for a visa in Europe, Switzerland, charges around £700, and the next highest after that, France, charges slightly over £300. Britain has thus erected barriers to entry for those who don’t already have resources before they arrive that no other European country has.

Another problem with the proposed immigration rules is that there is no attempt to reform the Home Office. Frankly, the Home Office has proven itself to be at best incompetent, and at worst actively malicious and antagonistic to the rights of immigrants. This was most heart-rendingly illustrated by the Windrush scandal, but there have been a number of recent cases which demonstrate that the Home Office doesn’t care about its own rules regarding immigration of academics. Most of the academics who have been denied visas to which they were entitled to are citizens of the Global South, but many, such as Prof. Amber Murray of the University of Oxford, or Dr. Elizabeth Ford, of the University of Edinburgh, are citizens of the United States. In Dr. Ford’s case, the Home Office actually tried to deport her despite eight years of living in the UK and a job offer. Unless the Home Office is entirely renewed (or ideally abolished) these sorts of lapses in immigration policy will make life for many immigrants an uncertain hell and will continue to drive away bright scientists who would otherwise settle in Britain.

But the greatest problem that the immigration policies of this Conservative government policies pose to science are the same ones they pose to the entire British economy, and they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of immigration. The new rules are designed to attract those who are already stable and established — the middle-aged who can already attract large and stable incomes. But immigration doesn’t occur amongst people who are already well-off and established where they live. Immigration is youthful, and most immigrants tends to be people seeking better opportunities towards the start of their lives. The new immigration seeks to attract people who are unlikely to come, while locking out those who have the most contribute. If British science is to prosper, it has to attract the brightest postgraduates and post-docs on earth, in hopes that they establish their careers here — Johnson’s immigration policy prevents them from doing so, and will no doubt harm science in the UK for decades to come.


Daniel Antonio Villar is a postgraduate at the University of St Andrews researching behavioural ecology and a member of the Executive Committee of Scientists for Labour