EU to call for easier visas for scientists as UK rejoins Horizon

The EU will tell the UK on Monday that it must ease visa procedures and costs for scientists or risk missing out on the full benefits of the Horizon Europe research programme. 

Iliana Ivanova, the EU research commissioner, will discuss the problem with British counterparts including Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and technology on a visit to London to mark the UK’s Horizon re-entry.

“We are having some difficulties with European researchers going to the UK due to some visa issues and also higher costs that I’m going to raise with the British side,” she told the Financial Times in an interview.

The Bulgarian added that both sides were “doing their best” to resolve these difficulties. 

“My focus will be on, what is the positive that we can bring and how we can eliminate those shortcomings so that we could speed it up and make it [Horizon] really work,” she said.

The tensions over visas threaten UK efforts to restore the prominent role it had in Horizon before it dropped out of the programme for three years.

Horizon has a €93bn budget between 2021-7 and almost 90 countries participate in it, with Canada’s accession just agreed and South Korea in talks.

The UK left in 2020 when it exited the EU but struck a deal to rejoin the programme last year as it repaired relations with Brussels. This means British institutions can once again lead consortiums. 

But the scientific community in Britain has complained that the UK visa system has become one of the most expensive in the world for recruiting top talent to the country.

Last year the government announced that it was increasing the NHS surcharge for skilled visa holders to the UK health system from £624 to £1,035 a year. It also said that it would hike the cost of visas by at least 15 per cent. The new charges came into force this month.

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences, has denounced the visa fees as a “punitive tax on talent”. It claims international researchers wanting to come to the UK face “upfront visa costs up to 10 times higher than the average fees of other leading science nations”.

Calculations by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a UK pressure group, said that the upfront costs for a researcher coming to the UK on a five-year Global Talent visa would jump from £3,743 to £5,890. For a family of five the fee would increase to £20,980 from £13,372 currently.

EU country rules vary, but in some, British nationals must get a work permit even to deliver a paid lecture.

Some member states have asked the European Commission to explore a wide ranging mobility deal with the UK covering sectors such as research and development. 

Several member states have asked for the removal of the NHS surcharge, according to EU officials familiar with internal discussions. 

Daniel Rathbone, interim executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said Ivanova was right to highlight the issue.

“Big increases in visa costs, including the immigration health surcharge, are totally counterproductive to the UK government’s ambitions of being a science and technology superpower,” he said.

Ivanova said that UK participation would strengthen Horizon, the world’s largest research programme, and that the EU was working to alleviate “as much as possible any remaining hurdles”.

The UK immigration system enabled international researchers to come to the country to contribute to the economy and society while “striking a balance with reducing net migration”, the department for science, innovation and technology said.

“Our global talent routes continue to attract and retain high-skilled talent to maintain the UK’s status as a leading international hub for emerging technologies,” it added.

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