Plans to invest £300 million in scientific infrastructure, extend post-study work visas for PhD graduates and establish an “Office for Talent” to attract top international researchers have been unveiled as part of a research “roadmap” designed to “cement the UK as an science superpower”.
Under wide-ranging plans announced by business secretary Alok Sharma on 1 July, the government will also set up a new Innovation Expert Group to review how it supports research from the idea stage through to product development, and has pledged to make up “any funding shortfalls” if the UK fails to strike a deal with the European Union on participating in the Horizon Europe framework programme.
The unveiling of the Research and Development Roadmap comes a day after a major speech by Boris Johnson in which he expressed his ambition to turn the UK into a “science superpower” and “end the chasm between invention and application that means a brilliant British discovery disappears to California and becomes a billion-dollar American company or a Chinese company”.
Under the new roadmap, £300 million will be brought forward to upgrade scientific infrastructure in research institutes and universities as part of a World Class Labs funding scheme. That is on top of the extra £280 million, announced over the weekend, that will be provided to universities to allow them to continue research during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as loan scheme to cover 80 per cent of losses from a decline in international student fee income.
The government will also set up a new Office for Talent to make it easier for top global science, research and innovation talent to come to the UK.
Based in 10 Downing Street with delivery teams across government departments, it will aim to help attract scientific talent to the UK, from promising young researchers to world leaders in their fields.
It will begin by reviewing the effectiveness of the current immigration rules and will aim to ensure excellent customer service across the immigration system, so that it is simple, easy, and quick, the government said.
The global talent scheme that will fast-track visa applications from foreign researchers, announced in February, will also be opened up to EU citizens which will allow highly-skilled scientists and researchers to come to the UK without needing a job offer, it added.
In addition, the government announced it will create a new graduate talent route, in which international students who complete a PhD from summer 2021 can stay in the UK for three years after study to live and work. At present, doctoral graduates can extend their Tier 4 visa for only 12 months.
The move follows the announcement in September 2019 that international students starting an undergraduate or master’s degree in 2020-21 would be eligible for two-year post-study work visa, reversing the 2012 decision to scrap this route.
The extension of the graduate route was hailed by Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK as a “bold policy move which will increase the UK’s competitive edge in the global competition for talented research students”.
Other improvements include extending the window in which prospective students can make visa applications, removing study time limits at postgraduate level and allowing all students to switch any other type of visa from within the UK.
Existing students and those who start their course this autumn will benefit from these changes, once they have been introduced, the government said.
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, welcomed the immigration rule changes, saying they “will help make the UK more attractive to the global student population, who bring significant social, cultural and economic benefits to all regions of the country”.
The roadmap also reiterated the government’s wish to participate in Horizon Europe, which begins in 2021, providing that a “fair and balanced” deal can be struck. If this does not happen, the government said that “will commit to meeting any funding shortfalls and putting in place alternative schemes to support vital UK research”.
Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said that “participation in EU research programmes has benefited everyone”, adding that “it is good to see the government’s renewed commitment to continuing that fruitful association”
Commenting on the new roadmap, Mr Sharma said it would help the country to “cement Britain’s reputation as a global science superpower”.
“The R&D roadmap sets out our plan to attract global talent, cut unnecessary red tape and ensure our best minds get the support they need to solve the biggest challenges of our time,” said Mr Sharma.