THE DATE OF AN EXCITING OVERSEAS ACADEMIC CONFERENCE IS APPROACHING, AND YOU DISCOVER
that you need a visa. You have to fill out an endless form (do you really have to list every
country you’ve visited over the past 5, or even worse 10, years?). You may need to travel to a
distant town for an interview. The visa may cost as much as your airline ticket. You begin to
question whether you really need to go to this conference at all. And you wonder what things
are like for someone trying to get a visa to attend a conference in your own country or work
in your institution.
This is a global problem. Throughout most of the developed world, governments are
responding to domestic concerns over immigration by tightening entry requirements and
introducing ever more complex application procedures for visas. This situation is harming
science. Governments are failing to appreciate, perhaps unknowingly, that scientists and
engineers across the world need to meet to carry on their business. The history of major
scientific breakthroughs is littered with accounts of seminal Solvay Conferences, Faraday
Discussions, Gordon Research Conferences, and so on, where key ideas were articulated for
the first time. Young researchers need to travel to widen their horizons and build up their skills by experiencing the scientific cultures
and approaches in different countries. Most countries, including the
United Kingdom, recognize this and do welcome young scientists
when they arrive. Nevertheless, the bureaucratic visa labyrinth still
sends a subliminal if not explicit message of "Stay at home."
As Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, I hear of failed visa
applications and other immigration problems in the United Kingdom
and across the world. Although the problems can sometimes be the
fault of scientists who are not organized enough to apply for a visa
in time, there is clearly a more fundamental problem with some visa
systems. What can be done to fix this?
We cannot assume that all governments understand that a problem exists. Senior scientists and engineers need to explain to their
governments that the movement of talented researchers is an essential prerequisite to addressing the grand challenges facing society around the globe, such as
climate change, sustainability, and antibiotic resistance. Scientists also need to make it clear
that overseas researchers are not economic migrants who are hell-bent on stealing jobs from
locals, but an essential component of a country's scientific workforce. And scientists must
emphasize to governments that international exchange is the best way of training future scientific leaders for the developing world. But more radical action is needed. The scientific
community needs international recognition to legitimize the exchange of researchers and
scientific dialogue across the world.
Last year, the Royal Society hosted the first of what it hopes will become regular meetings of the G8 science ministers and the presidents of their academies of science. There was
constructive discussion and consensus on important issues, but visas for scientists were not
discussed. Therefore, I suggest that a communique from the next meeting, provisionally
scheduled for this summer, should recognize the need for free and widespread international
exchange of researchers in science and engineering, especially for the younger generation.
Admittedly, this would be a small step, but perhaps it might start the chain reaction that is
needed to reach the ultimate goal of a single worldwide scientific community.
Local action can help too. The Royal Society and other UK academies have been steadily
building a working relationship with the UK Border Agency, and we are hopeful that constructive engagement with those in the front line can help smooth the process. The simultaneous but potentially conflicting political goals of wanting to promote international scientific collaboration and being tough on immigration can lead to unintended consequences.
However, when discussed constructively, such conflicts and misunderstandings can almost
certainly be resolved to the benefit of global science.
— Martyn Poliakoff
Martyn Poliakoff is
Foreign Secretary of
the Royal Society of