Daniel Zeichner: Our life sciences sector is a global success story - we cannot put that at risk

Posted On: 
30th January 2019

The success of our life sciences sector relies on our ability to attract and retain scientists from around the world. If we make this more difficult, and more costly, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, says Daniel Zeichner

Our life sciences sector is the global forefront of research, of science, of medicine – we cannot risk throwing this away, Daniel Zeichner writes
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Whatever the merits of the ongoing discussions about our relationship with our European neighbours, the long-awaited immigration white paper was an opportunity for a serious discussion about an issue challenging governments across the world.

The home secretary said in his statement on the paper’s publication that we want to “attract the brightest and best”, continue “being an open and welcoming nation” and “welcome talented migrants from every corner of the globe”. It’s hard to disagree with any of that but, sadly, the paper’s contents prove this to be simply rhetoric, completely at odds with the policy it contains – which is potentially damaging to the UK’s life sciences sector.

Although the home secretary says that “there will be no cap on numbers”, his policies are so crudely designed that it is easy to see that keeping numbers down is the driving force behind their development. He uses salary as a proxy for skills in the criteria for certain visas, assuming that any job that pays over £30,000 must be one requiring highly skilled personnel – and conversely that any under this threshold must not. What a slap in the face for the majority of MPs’ staff!

But beyond the Westminster bubble, this rules out post-doctoral researchers, experienced laser scientists, geoscience database engineers and the countless other researchers and technicians who keep our science sector at the cutting edge.

This will affect our life sciences sector in particular, a shining beacon in the UK’s economy. Across my region, there were reportedly 34,000 life science jobs in 2015, and likely more since the AstraZeneca move to Cambridge. According to PwC, in 2015 the UK life sciences sector contributed an estimated £30.4bn to the UK economy, and supported nearly half a million jobs across the country. With such a significant contribution to jobs and GDP, we cannot afford to ignore the interests of this sector – which is already threatened by Brexit.

In the life sciences sector, the fears of tariffs, regulatory diversion and missing out on our place in the European Medicines Agency already threaten pharmaceuticals, but the immigration white paper will have added ‘access to skills’ to that list.

The excellent Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge is globally competitive and is delivering part of the life sciences industrial strategy. Based on its current number of EU staff (around 19% of the workforce), the government’s proposed changes could mean a 170% increase in the number of visa applications handled by the Sanger, with a respective increase in cost. The cost will be exacerbated further by the recent doubling in cost of the health surcharge.

This cost is huge to a well-respected and established research institute like the Sanger, but could be crippling to new start-ups and SMEs in the wider life sciences sector, which have flourished with access to EU talent. Many of the staff of these smaller pharmaceutical companies will be paid under the aforementioned £30,000 threshold, and those paid over will incur huge visa costs. This is not attracting the brightest and best – it’s making it harder for companies to do business.

I recently met with HR managers on the prestigious Cambridge Science Park, who reiterated what I’ve heard for many years – that companies here compete for talent with places like Silicon Valley, Israel, Europe and increasingly China. Their success is based on being able to attract and retain scientists and experienced entrepreneurs from around the world. If we make this more difficult, and more costly, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

I fear that the risks that we take by having a backwards-looking, numbers-only focus to immigration while the nature of our relationship with the EU changes could threaten our success. Our life sciences sector is the global forefront of research, of science, of medicine – we cannot risk throwing this away because of the prime minister’s obsession with an impossible, restrictive immigration target.   

Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge, and vice-chair of the Life Sciences APPG