Science is a collaborative endeavour. It is rare that a single scientist makes a big discovery – advances often require research teams working together and across a variety of locations. Science is global. The Internet connects scientists all over the world, allowing us to share our research and ideas more freely with each other and with the public. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that many research groups are international.
As an American scientist living in the UK, I have a unique perspective on how the results of the EU referendum may affect the research community. Unlike many of my colleagues, I do not benefit from the current free movement across the EEA. To work in a lab, I had to obtain the appropriate visa, which can take months of time and cost thousands of pounds. Thankfully, the new Leave to Remain regulations will exempt non-EU PhDs from the £35,000 salary requirement, as many junior researchers who have been contributing to the UK research enterprise do not meet this threshold. Many research labs in Britain also employ EU nationals, which makes staffing and recruiting talented scientists much faster and easier. I was lucky in that my supervisor and research institute supported my visa and therefore I was able to bring my research expertise here to the UK. A recent report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) before the House of Lords made several recommendations regarding the impact of immigration on the strength of UK science and engineering. Imagine the additional challenges to the research community if the same work visa regulations fell upon European scientists. A vote to leave may also impact British nationals currently working in research labs across Europe.
Many arguments in the referendum debate have focused on the need for the UK to control who enters the country to live and work. However, scientists are highly trained and skilled workers, contributing their talents to society and the economy. Many other countries with strong research programs, including the United States, also recruit scientists from all over the world, but with fewer hurdles. During my PhD in the US, my supervisor employed researchers from Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Germany, South Korea, and Belarus. This was in addition to many American scientists. I remember several of my colleagues having to return to their home countries at different points to renew their work visas. It was an annoyance that usually put them out of the lab for about a month at a time. I can imagine now that this was a stressful time for many of them, but they were never denied permission to work in the US. And fortunately, new rules will allow those training in STEM fields to extend their US visas for an additional 2.5 years to work. Policies like these are in strong contrast to the current environment in the UK that makes it more difficult for international students to study, in addition to already limiting their ability to continue to work in Britain after receiving their degrees.
I am among the over 93% of scientists strongly in favour of the UK remaining within the EU. Having personally experienced the delays to relocation and employment that the lengthy visa application process creates, I am concerned that a vote to leave the EU will cripple research communities across Britain with bureaucracy. Contrary to the claim that implementing the same regulations for EEA and non-EU scientists would benefit people like me, I believe that it will negatively affect everyone and only further lengthen the process to get the best scientists working here. If we want to attract the brightest researchers, we should allow them an easier opportunity to bring their skills to the UK. We must keep science moving forward, and that requires diverse and international teams and the benefit of free movement. Our desire to remain is not simply an argument about losing research funding – it is UK science’s human capital that a vote to leave would decimate.