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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

British academics sound alarm over refusal of visas for scholars 

Denying entry to foreign academics affects sharing of knowledge, scientists say

Home secretary Sajid Javid has been urged to loosen up the rules on foreign academics visiting the UK for conferences (AFP)
Home secretary Sajid Javid has been urged to loosen up the rules on foreign academics visiting the UK for conferences (AFP)

The UK risks severely damaging its reputation as an international centre of scientific expertise if it does not change its stringent visa requirements in the run-up to Brexit, industry leaders have warned.

In a letter to the UK home secretary, a renowned researcher also threatened to hold future science summits abroad, a move he said would damage the country’s international standing – and not just in science.

Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was speaking after at least 17 delegates, mainly from Sub-Sharan Africa, were denied short-term visas to attend a major conference on female health in London this week.

Depriving attendees of the expert knowledge of citizens from low and middle-income countries would restrict the UK from vital, on the ground knowledge, Mr Piot told Home Secretary Sajid Javid in a letter.

“Our school is already considering moving the locations of many of our large international meetings to outside of the UK so that valued global experts can participate more easily,” he said.

He warned Mr Javid the current “restrictive” criteria for short-term business visas would only deter organisations from holding similar events in the UK at a time when the country should be “open for business”.

For the Nobel Prize winner Venki Ramakrishnan, the issue extended beyond science to the UK’s international standing as a whole.

“Some of the debate around Brexit is sending out a signal that the UK is no longer international in its outlook. When the Home Office stops invited experts from outside the EU from coming to the UK, that signal is reinforced,” said Mr Ramakrishnan, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 and is also president of the Royal Society.

“The visa system that has excluded these scientists may well be applied to the rest of the EU after Brexit – that could further worsen the international reputation of the UK,” he said in a statement.

Similarly, Mr Piot said he was gravely concerned the current visa application process continued to prevent bright, young academics from participating in conferences and imparting their vital knowledge.

“If the UK wants to establish itself as a global hub for health and science, the current visa restrictions represent a significant threat to that goal,” he wrote.

Since the UK voted to leave the EU, the scientific community has outlined concerns that it could be affected, with Mr Ramakrishnan especially vocal. He has warned previously of the dangers of a "no deal" Brexit and said the UK had very little to gain from leaving the EU.

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Speaking before Thursday’s conference, he said: “Global challenges require global solutions and that means you need people, with their ideas and information, to be able to come together.”

Mr Ramakrishnan said it would be harder to attract top EU talent to the UK.

“Seven out of 10 of our strongest scientific partners are EU nations and currently 60 per cent of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are with EU partners. Crashing out of the EU without a deal could undermine decades of close scientific collaboration,” he said in a recent op-ed for the Independent.