UK immigration rules hit science just as it rejoins €100B Horizon program

Salary regs could limit the hiring of postdocs from abroad

Following the UK's success in rejoining the EU’s Horizon science program, the government has promised a "push" to maximize the nation's participation so local academics, researchers, and businesses of all sizes can seize the opportunity of being part of the €100 billion scheme.

Science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan is even visiting Brussels to "turbo charge" the UK's efforts.

Celebrations, however, may be dampened as the the government, on the same day, announced its plans for new immigration rules, outraging some in the technical and scientific community that the re-joining of the Horizon program was intended to appease.

Under intense political pressure following the publication of figures for net migration hitting a record of 745,000 — despite repeated government promises to bring them down – the government set out its strategy to reduce the numbers, including the rules applied to minimum salaries.

The government said that from next spring, it would increase the earning threshold for overseas workers by nearly 50 percent from its current position of £26,200 ($33k) to £38,700 ($48,800), "encouraging businesses to look to British talent first and invest in their workforce, helping us to deter employers from over-relying on migration, whilst bringing salaries in line with the average full-time salary for these types of jobs."

Leading science commentators were quick to point out that the move could affect research teams hoping to bring foreign talent to the UK.

Geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford posted on the website formerly known as Twitter that, according to the Royal Society, about 61 percent of postdoctoral researchers are non-UK nationals, meanwhile the average postdoc starting salary is lower than the new threshold at £36,000 ($45,460).

Durham University associate professor of particle physics Martin Bauer said the new rules would be a "huge own goal."

"I hope the prime minister is aware that salaries of postdoctoral researchers have reached such a low level in this country that this law would make it impossible for UK scientists to employ international experts," he said.

Others raised questions about what the new rules mean. Under the old rules, PhD level applicants could earn between 70 percent and 90 percent of the standard threshold providing they exceed a £23,580 ($29.7k) and they had a postdoctoral position in science or higher education.

In its statement, the Home Office failed to state whether these rules would be updated or changed. The Register has requested it clarify the position.

The UK departed the Horizon programme after exiting the European Union, with the move becoming the focus of leading scientists' criticism of the departure from the world's largest trading bloc.

The Register has asked the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology whether it was consulted on the new immigration rules and whether it was given the opportunity to assess their impact on the UK getting the most from its participation in Horizon. ®

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