UK and India ‘should learn from US’ on researcher mobility

Government must do more to fast-track visas for talent, says top Indian official

April 27, 2022
Kolkata highway
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The UK and India should follow the US’ lead on making cross-border travel easier if they want to strengthen their research ties, according to top Indian researchers.

Vijay Raghavan, who this month finished his tenure as principal scientific adviser to the government of India, said that the two nations still needed to overcome a “bureaucratic barrier” to support scientific collaborations.

“Both our countries need to learn from America. America has succeeded because of its welcoming nature for ideas and immigrants from anywhere in the world,” he said, addressing attendees at an event on UK-India science and innovation partnerships, hosted by Imperial College London.

Almost 100,000 study visas were issued to Indian nationals last year, according to the Home Office. The figure is nearly double that of the previous year and only about 20,000 fewer than those granted to Chinese citizens, but proponents of a closer UK-India relationship would like to see it climb even higher.

Past regulations have not helped. Aiming to lower net migration to the UK and tackle visa abuse, a previous Conservative government closed the post-study work route, resulting in a sustained drop in recruitment from India in the 2010s.

Currently, international students applying for a graduate visa must pay a £715 fee to apply for a two-year visa to work in the UK after completing their course. Overseas researchers need to pay a similar amount to apply for a Global Talent Visa to work up to five years in the country. 

Professor Raghavan said that, while many of the successes in UK science have been achieved thanks to immigrants, the country must do more to fast-track visas for talent.

“The UK needs to, in my opinion, do this on a scale and in a manner which is distinct from its general policy on immigration. Talented people, the best and the brightest in the world, need to be able to come and…out very, very quickly,” he said.

But he was no less sparing in his criticism of India, saying that “if the UK needs to do this, India has to do this 100 times more”.

Govindan Rangarajan, director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, also praised the US on how it has opened doors to top international researchers.

“If I look at [the] US, there are not many strong institutional relations, government-to-government relations, compared to what we have with the UK or France,” he said, “but still the relationship thrives because the US has been welcoming”.

He noted that, in science, personal links are critical. “Government incentives and others can only do so much to further enhance collaborations”, said Professor Rangarajan. “Science is still essentially driven by person-to-person interactions…Many of us, including me, have done their PhDs in the US, so there’s a natural tendency to collaborate despite not having very formal…intergovernmental linkages.”

Both academics also brought up the need for India to “democratise” its research by funding a diversity of institutions rather than a select few. Here too, they praised the US as a positive example.

India is currently in the process of developing a National Research Foundation to fund science across disciplines. Modelled on the US’ National Science Foundation, it is meant to address long-standing concerns that too few Indian institutions are involved in research.

“Today, 90 per cent of Indian research support goes to major elite institutions across the country” that account for only 10 per cent of students, said Professor Raghavan, who noted that elite institutions must share the pot with their less prestigious counterparts.

India’s NRF aims to broaden the pool of institutions doing critical research. “This is what the NSF did decades ago and it transformed the US,” he said.

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