Promised immigration controls threaten UK pharma research

The UK’s world leading life sciences base could be under threat if a new Conservative government opts for immigration curbs over free trade post-Brexit, writes Andrew McConaghie

One week on from the UK’s seismic decision to leave the European Union, contenders for the role of Conservative party leader and Prime Minister are setting out their stall on what ‘Brexit’ will involve.

Those who campaigned to Remain in the EU – including outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron – said that promises of continued access to a single market but with new controls of immigration would be impossible.

But 17.4 million people (53% of voters) opted to ‘Leave’ the EU last week, and much of this sentiment was fuelled by concerns about uncontrolled immigration. Even while there is little evidence to suggest immigration has hurt UK workers and the economy – in fact there is some to suggest the contrary – the Conservatives believe they must respond to these concerns.

EU leaders have reiterated that free movement of goods and free movement of people are inseparable – but Theresa May, the new frontrunner for the Conservative leadership believes she can square this circle.

May is positioning herself as the ‘grown up’ candidate in contrast to her rival the boyish, charming Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign to victory. In a shock move, Johnson has now pulled out of the leadership race, making way for his co-campaigner Michael Gove.

While Boris has stepped back, however, May and Gove in particular are under pressure to claim the UK can have it all.  To quote Boris and his characteristically whimsical style: “My policy on cake is pro having and pro eating it”.

Launching her bid this morning, Theresa May said reducing net migration to tens of thousands is “where we want to aim for”.

She added: “As we conduct our negotiations it must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services but also, to regain more control of the numbers of people who are coming here from Europe.”

Threat to academic science and pharma

These political pledges have spurred UK science leaders to warn of dire consequences.

Prof Sir Paul Nurse is one of the country’s most eminent medical researchers, and says exit from the EU puts the UK’s world-class research base at risk.

“For science to thrive it must have access to the single market, and we do need free movement,” he said.

“We could negotiate that outside the EU, which will probably end up costing more money and we would have little influence [in deciding research priorities].”

Sir Paul had always opposed Brexit, and like many others in the country, hinted that a second referendum or a total re-think would be the best option.

“Or perhaps we should just reconsider this entire mess and see if there is something that can be done to reconsider this once the dust has settled.”

UK researchers are expressing their concerns – and celebrating multi-national teams on social media


British science also stands to lose out on funding from EU budgets – UK universities receive 10% of their research funding from the Europe, amounting to just over £1bn a year.

Leave campaigners insist that the UK will be able to negotiate a deal to allow EU grants to be maintained and still curb immigration, pointing to arrangements between the EU and nations such as Israel, Tunisia, Georgia and Armenia.

However faced with this new uncertainty around rights to move to the UK and funding, it is feared that talented scientists will simply look elsewhere.

Pharma worried

The UK pharmaceutical and biotech sectors were both staunch opponents of Brexit, and are now fearful of the consequences on the long-term health of their sector.

Around 73,000 people are employed in the UK pharma sector, with approximately 23,000 of those working in R&D.

Speaking to pharmaphorum, UK pharma industry association the ABPI said it was in the process of establishing just how many of these highly skilled employees were non-Brits, either EU nationals or non-EU nationals, but the figure is undoubtedly high.

A spokesman for the ABPI said it was difficult to establish an opinion on what a post-Brexit immigration and trade policy would be, but nevertheless expressed concerns.

“Any new arrangements would have to safeguard that supply of skills and talent which the pharma and biotech sectors have enjoyed in recent decades.

“Scientists thrive on collaboration – the ease of that collaboration now is been massively beneficial to research and the country as a whole.”

AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the two big pharma mainstays of the UK’s pharma research base, but the country is also home to an increasingly vibrant sector of small but highly innovative biotech firms such as Oxford-based Immunocore and Adaptimmune.

While the UK will retain many aspects which make it attractive – such as tax breaks for R&D – an undermining of the basic science base could have an impact on investment decisions in the long-term.

The UK government had already started to put controls on entry of non-EU workers before the referendum. Since April, non-EU skilled workers can only secure a visa to work in the UK if they earn £35,000 ($63,000) per year or more. There is an overall cap of 20,700 per year on their number – however the government has itself conceded that the scheme will have only a limited impact on immigration figures.

While this rule doesn’t affect most prospective pharma industry employees, this trend has been a concern for the sector.

AstraZeneca epitomises the cross-cultural, global nature of pharma, having maintained its research roots in both the UK and Sweden after it was created from a merger in 1999.

Its chief executive Pascal Soriot, is a French national who says he considers himself Australian, thanks to a long spell in business and family still resident there.

For a time the company maintained its own charter flight between the UK and Sweden to allow scientists and business leaders to hop back and forth across the North Sea.

New controls or limits to this kind of international working seems inconceivable to most business sectors, not just pharma.

In her speech this morning Theresa May gave a small hint that recognises that a compromise is inevitable, and will use this against her main rival for the role of Conservative leader and PM, Michael Gove.

She said “any attempt to wriggle out of” pledges to regain control immigration would be unacceptable to the public “especially from leadership candidates who campaigned to leave the EU”.

As she herself had campaigned to remain in the EU, this gives May some ‘wriggle room’ to arrive at a workable deal, while underlining the near-impossible promises made by Michael Gove and the Leave campaign. If she wins, UK science, including pharma and biotech companies will hope that she uses it.

Meanwhile, ministers are scrambling to try to reassure pharma and the wider life sciences field that their future is in safe hands. Life sciences minister George Freeman is to bring together a ‘Life Science Brexit Taskforce’ next week to address the big issues.

And this morning minister for universities and science Jo Johnson – brother of Boris – announced new funding and a new strategic body, UK Research and Innovation.

Jo Johnson stressed that the UK remains ‘fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU’ for the meantime – but research requires long-term stability and access to the best talent to flourish, and without it UK science will be in peril.