UK must not close its doors to skilled researchers

By Dr Sophie Laurie, Head of RCUK International.

Last August the Government asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the shortage occupation list; occupations where the UK currently lacks skilled workers. Usually, employers recruiting outside the EEA are required to complete a test to demonstrate that there is no suitable settled worker, but this requirement is waived for occupations on the list. The UK maintains its well-deserved reputation as a global research leader in a number of ways, and the ability to attract the best international talent is essential, particularly in areas where we currently lack sufficient home-grown highly skilled researchers.

 One of the review’s proposals is that that all occupations and job titles which have been on the shortage occupation list for longer than two years should be removed. At present, many of the research areas where we need a reliable and uncomplicated migratory route are included on the shortage occupation list, but this could all change if the MAC upholds this recommendation when it reports on 31 January.

 As RCUK we work closely with the UK research community to identify current and emerging skills gaps and to ensure that the right support and investment goes into addressing them. But it’s simply not possible to create a highly trained researcher in two years. In fact, we estimate that it takes 7-8 years to progress from gaining a PhD to the first steps in an independent career. Add A levels, an undergraduate degree and the PhD itself to that and it’s clear that only long-term action can help us ‘grow our own’ researchers. While we’re building capacity, it is of course vital that the UK doesn’t drop behind our global competitors and, to avoid this happening, it’s essential that the Government’s immigration policy enables the Research Councils to attract and retain the best international talent via a flexible approach.

 The automatic removal of key occupations from the shortage list after two years risks shutting down the UK’s ability to participate in emerging research fields. Closing the door in the face of those immigrants – geoscientists, biostatisticians, informatics specialists to name but a few – whose skills can benefit the UK so greatly, would surely be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

 The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently wrote to Immigration Minister Mark Harper to make the case for protecting these vital immigration routes into the UK for key research staff, a letter to which RCUK gave our formal support. We therefore hope that the Government will maintain its valued commitment to research by making sure any changes to the shortage occupation list do not have an adverse effect on the UK.

India’s new 12th Five Year Plan – Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth

By Dr Nafees Meah, Director RCUK India.

The Planning Commission in India has been producing Five Year Plans since 1951.  These Plans set the strategic direction for the Government of India for the following five years.  In December 2012, the Planning Commission published the near final draft 12th Five Year Plan – Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth  Simultaneous achievement of these elements is seen as crucial for the success of the Plan.  The 12th Plan says that ‘[it] must be guided by a vision of India moving forward in a way that would ensure a broad-based improvement in living standards of all sections of the people through a growth process which is faster than in the past, more inclusive and also more environmentally sustainable’

Thus the 12th Plan calls for more attention to be given to problem of sustainability. It states that ‘No development process can afford to neglect the environmental consequences of economic activity, or allow unsustainable depletion and deterioration of natural resources’ and several chapters are devoted to the issues of water, land use, environment, forestry and wildlife.   

There is wide ranging discussion of how India should deal with the effects of climate change whilst an international agreement to tackle this issue remains to be reached.  The National Action Plan for climate change has evolved with eight component missions and implementation of these missions is seen as an integral part of the 12th Plan.  

The Plan is a substantial document in three volumes.  The first volume is an overarching document (the second and third volumes look in more detail at the economic and social sectors respectively).  Of particular interest to UK scientists is the extensive discussion and description of the scientific and technical challenges facing India.  Thus Chapter Four on Sustainable Development summarises the findings of the Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies.  One of the interesting things in the Plan is the renewed interest in wind power.  Chapter Five on Water sets out the daunting challenges faced by Indian society and economy.  Water tables are falling and this comes at a time of rapid industrialising economy and urbanising society.  Climate change, of course, poses new challenges with its effects on the hydrological cycle.  It asserts that there is a need for a paradigm shift in the management of water resources in India.  Chapter Five on Environment, Forestry and Wildlife posits a new set of targets to be monitored covering, inter alia, environment and climate change, forests and livelihoods and ecosystem and biodiversity. 

Finally, science and technology is recognised as playing a critical role in the delivery of the 12th Plan.  There is an ambition to increase investment in in R&D from 1% to 2% of GDP.  Chapter Eight sets out the plans for the six major science Ministries and all see a substantial increase in funding.  Specific focus areas for the 12th Plan are: a) Enrichment of Knowledge Base – the aim is to position some of its R&D institutions in the top 50 in the world; b) Human Resource Development and University Interaction – a radical transformation of the science education system to improve the quality of S&T education and research at university level; c) Aligning S&T to Development Needs – to develop solutions to issues that are important for the country’s development goals, particularly in areas of energy, water, sanitation, farm production, health care, waste disposal, computing and communications, and e-infrastructure.

If the ambition of investing 2% of GDP on R&D is achieved and the quality of its research base is improved, then India, by virtue of its size is likely to be one of the most important scientific nations in the world.  What is certain is that India faces a host of challenges where capacity and capability in S&T and an innovation system that translates knowledge into solutions is going to be crucial.  All in all, an interesting read.