Exclusive: A fast-track visa route for Nobel prize laureates and other award-winners in science, engineering, the humanities and medicine has failed to attract any applicants
22 November 2021
Not a single scientist has applied to a UK government visa scheme for Nobel prize laureates and other award winners since its launch six months ago, New Scientist can reveal. The scheme has come under criticism from scientists and has been described as “a joke”.
In May, the government launched a fast-track visa route for award-winners in the fields of science, engineering, the humanities and medicine who want to work in the UK. This prestigious prize route makes it easier for some academics to apply for a Global Talent visa – it requires only one application, with no need to meet conditions such as a grant from the UK Research and Innovation funding body or a job offer at a UK organisation.
The number of prizes that qualify academics for this route currently stands at over 70, and includes the Turing Award, the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science International Awards, and various gongs awarded by professional or membership bodies both in the UK and elsewhere.
“Winners of these awards have reached the pinnacle of their career and they have so much to offer the UK,” said home secretary Priti Patel when the prestigious prize scheme launched in May. “This is exactly what our new point-based immigration system was designed for – attracting the best and brightest based on the skills and talent they have, not where they’ve come from.”
But a freedom of information request by New Scientist has revealed that in the six months since the scheme was launched, no one working in science, engineering, the humanities or medicine has actually applied for a visa through this route.
“Chances that a single Nobel or Turing laureate would move to the UK to work are zero for the next decade or so,” says Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, UK. Geim won a Nobel prize in 2010 for his work on graphene. “The scheme itself is a joke – it cannot be discussed seriously,” he says. “The government thinks if you pump up UK science with a verbal diarrhea of optimism – it can somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Frankly, having precisely zero people apply for this elitist scheme doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Jessica Wade, a material scientist at Imperial College London and a diversity in science campaigner. “UK scientists’ access to European funding is uncertain, we’re not very attractive to European students as they have to pay international fees, our pensions are being cut and scientific positions in the UK are both rare and precarious.”
“It’s clear this is just another gimmick from a government that over-spins and under delivers,” says shadow science minister Chi Onwurah. “It is not surprising that the government has failed so comprehensively to attract scientists from abroad, given their lack of consistent support for scientists here.”
A Home Office spokesperson told New Scientist that the prestigious prizes route makes it easier for those at the “pinnacle of their career” to come to the UK. “It is just one option under our Global Talent route, through which we have received thousands of applications since its launch in February 2020 and this continues to rise,” they said.
Neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop at the University of Oxford says other visa routes are already quick-moving for top scientists and says it is odd that this scheme was launched in the first place.
Andrew Clark at the Royal Academy of Engineering says his organisation is happy with the number of applications they have seen recently across all immigration routes for foreign scientists. “In many cases applicants would be eligible for multiple routes,” he says. “We wouldn’t want to focus on the use of any particular route over a six-month period, but rather the overall success.”
The idea of prioritising entry to the UK for science award winners is flawed, according to geoscientist Christopher Jackson at the University of Manchester, who in 2020 became the first black scientist to host the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures. Jackson says these awards are inherently biased and an immigration system based on them will only replicate science’s lack of diversity.
“How we measure excellence is very nebulous,” says Jackson. “These awards favour certain people – those who are white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered – and reward them based on their privilege.”
Of the over 600 Nobel science laureates from 1901, just 23 are women. No award has ever been given to a black laureate in a science subject. “Studies show that most scientific award winners are white men of European descent and often working at American universities,” Jackson says.
Similar patterns are seen in those who win some of the other awards eligible for the prestigious prize visa route. Of the five who have won the Institute of Physics’ Isaac Newton Medal and Prize since 2015, none have been women. Only one woman has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Prince Philip Medal since 2014.
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