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Nobel Prize winner renews call for relaxed UK immigration rules

© Adrian Dennis, AFP | Nobel laureate John O'Keefe

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-10-07

John O’Keefe, one of the three neuroscientists who won the Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday, has warned against the threat migration restrictions pose to British research – an ongoing debate in the UK and elsewhere.

Speaking at a press conference in London following the Nobel Prize announcement on Monday evening, Prof O’Keefe said that “immigration rules are very, very large obstacles” in his work.

He heads a new brain research centre at University College London, which he needs to staff with top neuroscientists.

“I am acutely aware of what you have to do if you want to bring people into Britain and to get through the Immigration act. It is something we should be thinking hard about, making Britain a more welcoming place,” Prof O’Keefe said in reference to legislation enacted last May.

He is the son of Irish migrants himself and holds both British and US citizenships.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ immigration

Scientists have repeatedly criticised efforts by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to tighten immigration rules.

Sir Andre Geim, a Russian-born British physicist and Nobel laureate in 2010, is among the country’s most vocal opponents to current immigration policy. Two years ago in an interview with the Independent newspaper, he described stricter income and residency criteria for immigrants to the UK as “stupid”.

Geim, however, does not advocate for mass immigration.

“We need to distinguish between good and bad immigration,” he told the paper. “There is a difference between a person who brings a family of 20 who cannot speak English and a bright overseas student.”

Geim is among a number of scientists who began to campaign for easier access for international academics as early as 2010, in a joint open letter with seven other Nobel laureates.

“The Government’s plan to cap migration to the UK (…) would damage our ability to recruit the brightest young talent, as well as distinguished scientists, into our universities and industries,” the scientists wrote at the time.

Similar public statements by scientists in the UK have appeared regularly over the past few years.

Disagreement among Convervative majority

Meanwhile, the government’s stated policy has been to make it harder for migrants to access the UK in an attempt to reduce net migration from more than 200,000 to a few tens of thousands in five years.

The ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is divided over the issues. Hardline Conservatives have complained that migration policy was still too lenient and two MPs have joined the far-right UK Independence Party, citing immigration concerns – a hot topic with elections due next year.

But others share the scientists’ concerns – among them Mark Field MP, who founded the Conservatives for Managed Migration group last March in an attempt to move away from “hysterical reactions” and “make the positive case for welcoming those who can make our country greater”.

Field gave the example of a Japanese law professor who wanted to visit a British university on sabbatical for two years from 2015, but was only offered a one-year visa without the right to teach.

French “talent passport” to lure foreign scientists

France’s Socialist-led government introduced a legislative bill in July, which it claims will reverse the access restrictions imposed on foreign academics by the previous conservative majority.
While recognised scientists, artists and athletes can currently apply for a special “talents and skills” French residency permit, around 300 people only are approved each year.
The proposed legislation would replace the scheme with a broader, four-year “talent passport” for the applicant and their family.

Tech leaders pushing for reform

The UK is not the only country where the need for bright scientific brains clashes with immigration restrictions.

In the US, the technology industry has taken the lead in advocating for immigration reform, spending millions on advertising and lobbying in favour of easier procedures to hire foreign talent.

FWD.us, the immigration reform advocacy group launched by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year, has received support from all the big names in the Silicon Valley.

Yet despite its efforts, Congress has blocked President Barack Obama’s far-reaching immigration reform plan. Tech firms are now reduced to hoping for technical measures to ease visa procedures for the engineers they need and their families.

Date created : 2014-10-07

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