Brexit and the recruitment of scientists to the UK – we need clarity from the government

I’ll make an honest declaration – I voted for the UK to remain in the EU, and was shocked and saddened when, on the morning of June 24th, I discovered that my fellow country-folk had committed the UK to leave. But we are where we are, and there are plenty of people who are committed to ensuring that the UK life sciences sector remains in a prominent position within Europe. This article is not another whinge about our future exit, but a plea to the government to give some clarity and leadership.

Last November, I wrote an article with the title, “Remaining part of the EU will ensure the UK can attract the best scientists”. I wrote of my concerns regarding the people issues; the ability of EU scientists to freely seek employment within the UK. I referred to the heavy investment in biomedical research that had created a highly successful cluster across London, Oxford and Cambridge, commonly known as the “Golden Triangle” and the new investment funds that had sprung up. I stated then, “For all this to work and continue to grow, we also have to be able to attract the best scientific talent.”

So where do we go from here? I am hoping that the government can negotiate some beneficial global trade deals; but that is still some time in the future. What I observe at the moment, is that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, is having a real impact, particularly on our ability to attract and retain skilled scientific managers. Let me give some examples,

  • We frequently contact EU citizens, regarding new roles in the UK. When I speak to potential candidates, the majority of them have raised the issue of Brexit and the impact it might have on them and their families.
  • We also contact EU citizens, resident in the UK, regarding potential jobs in mainland Europe. On at least three occasions, I have received the response that they are now ready to look at opportunities outside the UK, as they want to “get back into the EU”.
  • I was recently speaking to a CEO who has to recruit from overseas (primarily the EU) to fill vacancies where there are skill shortages. And whilst he is confident that legislation will be put in place that will still allow him to freely recruit from the EU, he did concede that if barriers were put up to prevent the easy movement of labour from the EU, he would have to consider moving his manufacturing base overseas.

These are obviously anecdotal stories, but they do illustrate that the uncertainty that a significant number of EU nationals feel, is real. So my message to the government is this. We have a great bioscience sector in the UK, driven by our innovative culture and our ability to attract the best scientific talent. We must not compromise our ability to attract that talent, and therefore I feel that the government must make a clear statement that any new legislation will not make it more difficult for biopharmaceutical companies and biomedical research organisations to recruit from overseas and that the families of those employees will not be disadvantaged. The UK must remain “open” for innovative scientists.

Paul Edwards is the Managing Partner, Global Healthcare with Horton International , a leader in the Executive Search community.