Attracting ― and keeping ― the best
Today we learned of a simplification to the immigration process for senior researchers from overseas. Here Linda Holliday, Deputy Human Resources Director at the MRC, reflects on the announcement, and the importance that information from those working at the coalface of recruitment has in bringing about changes to immigration policy.
The UK has an excellent track record in science and research. Despite growing international competition, the UK research base is second in the world for excellence and we are the most productive country for research in the G8 group of nations. When it comes to individual disciplines, the UK tends to come first or second in the rankings.
Our scientific workforce is a vibrant and diverse group of people. We know that the collaborations that UK researchers establish with their international counterparts is of a high quality and we rely on the UK’s immigration system to help us bring people to the UK for short periods to continue these collaborations, as well as attracting and retaining the best international talent for longer-term positions.
Since the introduction of the points-based immigration system, and the Government’s wish to reduce net migration, scientists have raised concerns about whether the system is fit to attract and keep the best talent, and also about the message it sends to those from abroad wanting to work with us.
Today sees the announcement that researchers from non-EU countries who are in receipt of a research council or Wellcome Trust fellowship can obtain ‘accelerated endorsement’ for a Tier 1 (exceptional talent) visa. A Tier 1 visa is a mark of the highest research quality and awarded to the individual, allowing freedom of employment anywhere in the UK.
Tier 1 of the immigration system is significantly underused, so much so that we feared it could be closed off. As an employer we found the process an employee would have to go through to obtain a Tier 1 visa arduous, because it replicated a peer-review process that had already been conducted during recruitment or fellowship application. So we proposed a simplified process that recognises the extensive peer review processes that underlie our fellowship awards. This trial will run for a period of six months from 1 April.
This is an important step towards ensuring that our immigration system does not place onerous pressures on either international applicants or the institutions which wish to employ them.
But it is still a relatively small step. Fellows are a proportionately small group of people, and there are concerns about immigration policy at many stages of scientific careers. These concerns sometimes lack the hard evidence that is required for government officials to make changes to policy. Within human resources departments across research organisations there is a wealth of information on recruitment and retention of scientists. Such recruitment information can play a key part in changing policy.
For instance, when the Government notified us in 2012 of its intent to review the Shortage Occupation List (a list detailing all roles that UK employers find it hard to recruit to from the UK population) we were keen to respond to their consultation, and surprised to learn that no medical research roles were listed.
We brought together a group of representatives of universities, funders and learned bodies to review all the data we had on recruitment and retention in one discipline where our HR professionals knew there were significant recruitment issues: bioinformatics and computational biology. These were also disciplines that we were investing in heavily ― we needed to know we would have the best talent available to work on the research we had funded.
We used the data to identify specific problems at the more senior end of the career path, which result in fewer trainers to educate the next generation, leading to a vicious circle of talent shortage. Read our full case.
Our case was accepted in 2013 and now, for bioinformatics and computational biology roles, UK employers do not have to comply with the usual ‘resident labour market test’. This allows employers to adopt a more effective and flexible recruitment strategy when trying to fill these strategically important posts.
Today we are pleased to have played our role in simplifying access to Tier 1 of the immigration system for fellows. We hope that before long we can apply the same principles to the recruitment of all of our independent research leaders across the medical research sector.