George Osborne, the Chancellor, yesterday claimed the Coalition has “fast-tracked” visas for the “very best scientists in the world” with its programme to encourage outstanding academics to come to the UK.
But the Royal Society said only a “negligible” number of scientists have actually applied for the initiative since it started in August last year.
Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, said Britain’s reputation for tough immigration rules means academics “no longer feel they are welcome”, despite the new visas for “exceptionally talented” foreigners.
He challenged the Chancellor over the fact that some scientists feel Britain is “not open for business” as ministers try to reduce the overall number of immigrants with harsher restrictions.Speaking on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Mr Osborne said the visa system is actually very open to the “brightest and best” foreigners.
But he admitted Britain may need to change its image if it is discouraging the world’s best scientists from settling.
“You do have to have immigration control, and the public lost confidence in immigration control” he said. “So it’s important that the Government gets public confidence in immigration control. But immigration control should not keep out the brightest and the best from the world.”
Under the scheme, foreign academics can apply for visas to the Royal Society, the Arts Council, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Academy if they are “leaders in their respective fields”.
They had a quota of 1,000 visas to hand out annually, but only around five per cent of that number had been given away by October in more than a year of operation.
A spokesman for the Royal Society said it had “very, very few applications”. He said there is “anecdotal evidence that suggests academics do not view the UK as the most welcoming place”.
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: “The exceptional talent Tier 1 visa is a new route for individuals who are internationally recognised in their field and was created to ensure we get the brightest and the best to come to the UK.
“Many of those who could apply for the exceptional talent visa are still coming through the normal route, but we would expect those in the arts and science world who don’t want to be tied to a specific employer to make greater use of this avenue in the future.”
The “exceptional talent” visas are meant to help make Britain into the best place in the world for cutting-edge research, amid competition from universities in the US, Europe and developing countries such as Singapore.
The Chancellor yesterday said he personally intervened to make sure two foreign scientists stayed in Britain to develop commercial uses for a super-material called graphene.
Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian academics at the University of Manchester, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for demonstrating the remarkable properties of graphene – a kind of two-dimensional carbon which is one of the thinnest, lightest, strongest and most conductive materials known to man.
The Government stepped in with £21.5 million of funding for further research into graphene at Manchester, Imperial College, London, and the University of Cambridge. Mr Osborne said ministers should take this sort of “dirigiste” action where it can help the British economy benefit from new scientific discoveries.
December 27′ 2012