16 July 2021

Britain should actively recruit foreign talent, not just wait for it to come

By A Howes, S Dumitriu & P Salter

The UK tends to take a build-it-and-they-will-come approach to attracting the world’s top scientific and innovative talent – an important mission given that so much of our innovation depends upon immigrants. While just 14% of UK residents are born outside the country, 49% of the UK’s hundred fastest-growing startups and 11 of its 16 startup unicorns had at least one foreign-born co-founder.

Making the UK more attractive to foreign innovators while reducing their barriers to entry is a significant first step, as demonstrated by the newly-created Innovator, Startup, and Global Talent visas. But more needs to be done to reduce the frictions associated with moving.

Adopting a digital residency model like that of Estonia, Georgia, Croatia, Norway, Malta and an increasing number of other countries would help. In Estonia, for example, even those not living in the country can benefit from e-residency, meaning entrepreneurs can build a business from any part of the world. The new Digital Nomad Visa allows remote workers to live in Estonia and legally work for their employer or their own company registered abroad.

In the UK, the Startup and Innovator Visas are welcome steps, but they are still not working in practice. They aim to give incubators, accelerators, and venture capital firms – some of the organisations best placed to identify, and most incentivised to search for top talent  – a key role as external endorsing bodies for these visas. But as part of the announced review the schemes need reforms. Primarily, the Government needs to redouble its efforts to ensure there are more high-quality endorsing bodies with ‘general’ acceptance criteria – not just sector or geography specific. In addition, more clarity needs to be given about the definition of an innovative business idea, endorsing bodies need to get subsequent endorsements quicker after they have got through a batch of 25, the requirements for Indefinite Leave to Remain should be eased, and the schemes need more international promotion from Government and our embassies. In addition, entrepreneurs who have raised significant funding from institutional investors should be automatically granted a visa with the investor acting as the endorsing body for the period of sponsorship.

Aside from this change, the processing of all visas should be streamlined and sped up while reducing the complexity associated with maintaining a visa or transferring between different visa routes. Even the smallest delays and confusion can put people off from applying, with many entrepreneurs understandably wanting to avoid the risk of not knowing how long or whether they can stay in the country. In the meantime, people who legitimately switch between different visa routes should not have to go back to their home country – a friction that often results in them giving up and never coming back, causing significant and needless cost to British jobs, businesses, and living standards as a whole.

Likewise, many leading innovators may need to look after family, particularly ageing parents, so we risk losing them again to emigration (or to them never coming in anticipation of this). We should therefore relax the rules on dependency, reducing the bureaucracy associated with innovators bringing close relatives with them.

Apart from reducing frictions and barriers to entry, however, the UK can afford to go even further, by proactively identifying and persuading innovators to settle in the country.

Such policies have a long and global history, the most famous recent example being Operation Paperclip: shortly after the Second World War, the US actively recruited over 1,600 German engineers, persuading them to move to America. These recruits became many of the chief architects of the US space programme, including Wernher von Braun. A similar approach in the 19th century ensured that Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a British engineer, rather than a French, Russian or American one, because of the government’s active steps to recruit and retain the engineering talent of his father.

We should not just learn from these past successes, but try to surpass them. The new Office for Talent, for example, should do more than just attract researchers, but actively recruit them, especially in areas where the UK hopes to be at the forefront of technology, such as AI. It could help broker deals between universities and prominent international academics to set up their labs at UK universities. At the moment, international talent sees the visa system as a hurdle to overcome. This approach would flip the perception on its head.

There is also a case for focusing on potential over past achievements. One recent study finds a powerful link between performance at the International Mathematical Olympiad and future achievements in research. Just as Premier League clubs invest heavily in scouting the next Neymar or Messi from South America, the UK should do the same in terms of finding the next Demis Hassabis or Katalin Karikó. The government should actively fund scholarships targeted at the next generation of scientists across the developing world and investigate the best predictors of success. Utilising the full talents of the best and brightest in the developing world would not just boost innovation in the UK, but have powerful spillovers for the rest of the world. One study finds reducing immigration barriers – by addressing financial constraints for top foreign talent – could increase the global scientific output of future cohorts by 42%.

There is intense global competition for talent. Open-door policies are no longer sufficient. We need to rediscover the lessons of Operation Paperclip and adopt an active pro-migration approach.

This article is part of ‘The Way of the Future’, a collection of essays from The Entrepreneurs Network and the Tony Blair Institute setting out how Britain can tackle stagnating productivity and become world-leading in science.

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Anton Howes is Head of Innovation Research at The Entrepreneurs Network, Sam Dumitriu is Research Director at The Entrepreneurs Network and Philip Salter is the founder of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.