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Boris Johnson's plan to boost British science is a puny water pistol against the raging flames of Brexit

Visa rules don’t attract scientists. Visa rules make it easier or harder to bring in scientists already attracted to work in your country

Boris Johnson plans to abolish visa caps for world's most skilled scientists and engineers

Boris Johnson has made his long-overdue pitch to the world of science, and it is a lightweight, barely formed beast which counterbalances the onrushing Brexit damage much like a toy plastic duck in the bath counterbalances a collapsing house.

Yesterday afternoon, Boris Johnson scheduled a video on his Facebook page, ostensibly announcing science immigration plans. In fact, the two-minute live video spent the first minute on police and the NHS, before spending one minute proclaiming there would be changes to immigration rules to make the UK even more open to scientists – and now he had to go back to work. It was fleeting, at best.

We were told fractionally more in a later interview with the BBC. Namely that the government will look into removing a cap on the Tier 1 visas for exceptional talent, consider how to help bring in their families, and consider how to allow institutions more rights to determine who they can bring in. But that is it. A token offering as the fires rage.

"We're going to turn the UK into a kind of supercharged magnet, drawing scientists like iron filings from around the world” bragged Johnson to the BBC. But therein lies the rub.

Visa rules don’t attract scientists. Visa rules make it easier or harder to bring in scientists already attracted to work in your country. The colossal damage nested within the no-deal Brexit the government is planning will hit the UK’s attractiveness hard in the gut.

The UK science community was not impressed. “Scientists are not fools,” said Sir Andre Geim to The Times “They know that turmoil is inevitable for many years.”

“The reforms are small beer compared to the chaos, disruption and damage … that will result from a no-deal Brexit" said Prof James Wilsdon.The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees told The Times “To expect this government to create a ‘welcoming’ environment seems deeply implausible.”

For anyone interested, the Science Media Centre provides a rich array of quotes proffering exactly the same assessment: This is a welcome move, but utterly trivial in comparison to Brexit, and especially no-deal Brexit.

And here lies the danger – that the PM pushes forward with a plan that bulldozes UK science, with the Brexit faithful having been sold the easy decoy that Johnson is somehow “supercharging” British science. This is why the announcement is not only vapid, but tries to slap masking tape over a flashing warning light.

It will not work. Brexit hits the UK on two levels: cultural and career development. Culturally, the science community is overwhelmingly against Brexit. Further, we have had many first-hand reports of increasing racism/xenophobia to non-British EU citizens after the referendum. This is a huge concern in that community, causing some to leave.

The current UK rhetoric appears to rely upon hostile positioning against our neighbours, and that may well intensify. That clearly creates an unattractive environment for foreign scientists to come to, let alone bring their children to.

Then there are the prospects for career development: the uncertainty around Brexit, the economic damage, the lack of investment, uncertainty about foreign citizens’ rights and uncertain relationship with the Horizon 2020 programme. All of this builds a cocktail of damage that reduce the stable, career-nurturing, well-networked environment that UK science has been.

Just on the Horizon 2020 issue; at Scientists for EU, we calculated that a no-deal Brexit, which reduces the UK to a “third country”, reduces our access to the programme by about 45 per cent overall (a value of about £500m per year). These streams are irreplaceable because of their international nature and prestige levels. Many exceptional scientists will want to go to countries where they can lead, not play second fiddle, on such large multinational collaborations.

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Sadly, both Boris Johnson and his henchman Dominic Cummings profess to value UK science, but poorly understand the cultural drivers of its success.

Cummings had wanted to run the 2016 Vote Leave campaign on championing science. The Vote Leave Twitter account still cries “Take control. Invest in NHS & science”. When I met Cummings for coffee after the referendum, he acknowledged the damage but still appeared to naively believe that the exit from the EU would provide for a financial boost to science. Cummings has now ended up hurting the thing he loves, with his drive to a no-deal Brexit risking that thing he loves much more still.

The cultural path they are setting for Britain is one that will not attract the brightest and best – it will dissuade them.

Dr Mike Galsworthy is director of Scientists for EU

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