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Brexit government’s anti-immigration stance spooks UK scientists

Plans to restrict freedom of movement intensify researchers’ fears over June vote.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May wants to cut down on immigration. Credit: Lindsey Parnaby/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

UK scientists say they’re dismayed by their new government’s toughened stance on curbing immigration, including ideas to restrict the flow of foreign students and workers.

The government outlined its plans this week at the annual Conservative party conference, which was the first since the country gained a new Prime Minister, Theresa May, in the wake of June's vote for Brexit — the decision that the UK should leave the European Union.

In speech after speech at the conference, held in Birmingham, politicians made it clear that they wanted to eliminate the free movement of EU citizens into the UK once the country splits from the EU, an event now expected to take place in 2019.

“We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again,” said May, opening the conference.

Since the referendum, in which concerns over immigration were believed to have played a big role in swaying voters, scientists have worried about how Brexit would affect the free movement of people. Although the government has not yet fleshed out its latest proposals in detail, they are the strongest indication yet that scientists will not be allowed to move freely between the UK and the EU after Brexit — which in turn means that UK researchers may well be excluded from EU funding programmes.

“There has been a change in tone. I was surprised by how strong some of the comments were,” says Azeem Majeed, who heads the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College London.

He says the perception that non-UK citizens are not welcome — which grew as a result of June’s Brexit referendum — has only increased since the conference. That is particularly the case in health fields, as the Conservative government has pledged to cut the number of foreign doctors in favour of UK citizens.

“Following the referendum, there was already a psychological impact on our EU staff,” he says. “The comments from the conference in the past few days have added to that.”

Taking away freedom

UK universities get about 16% of their research funding and 15% of their staff from the EU, and scientists have been vocal about the need to maintain some form of free movement for people between the UK and EU after Brexit.

It may even be a prerequisite for UK access to EU research funding. When Switzerland restricted freedom of movement in 2014, its researchers lost access to the major Horizon 2020 research-funding programme, leading to protracted negotiations that are still ongoing.

“The hard line on freedom of movement is almost certain to restrict us from EU funds,” says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London.

Other comments on immigration and restricting foreign students are also going down poorly in academia. “It’s reinforcing the rather sour atmosphere,” says Curry. “I think the mood has turned a lot darker [since the conference]”.

Worker restrictions

UK home secretary Amber Rudd said in her conference speech that the government would consider making it harder to recruit from overseas, forcing companies to disclose the proportion of foreign staff working for them, and cutting down on universities’ ability to recruit foreign students to “lower quality courses”.

“We had a very decisive message from the Conservative conference that the priority is simply reducing the number of people who come here, and if that damages the economy, so be it,” says Jonathan Portes, an economist at the UK National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London.

The conference was not all bad news for science and science policy, however, says Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. She says that the comments on immigration are concerning. But she adds that, at the Birmingham conference, “We’ve seen the government being much more clearly positive about research and innovation in general.”

She cites a keynote speech from the Chancellor, Philip Hammond — which praised science as a driver of growth and emphasized the need to get “the brightest and best to work here in our high-tech industries” — and positive comments from science minister Jo Johnson at events away from the main auditorium.

But Portes, chief economist for the UK Cabinet Office during the 2008–09 financial crisis, says Hammond's positive messages for science don't outweigh the negative impacts of May and Rudd's plans. “It’s nice to know the chancellor is not on the same page as the PM and the home secretary, but it seems pretty clear who is calling the shots,” he says.

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Cressey, D. Brexit government’s anti-immigration stance spooks UK scientists. Nature 538, 147–148 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2016.20755

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