1 November 2023

How the UK can harness global talent

By Ruchir Agarwal and Patrick Gaule

We have a rich history of far reaching scientific innovation. From Newton’s laws to Turing’s computational breakthroughs to DeepMind, the UK has long been a crucible for ideas with global impact.

Central to this legacy is the role of exceptional human talent – a vital ingredient for frontier discovery. As this week’s AI summit will emphasise, the ripple effects of innovation are felt more profoundly than ever, and have the potential to spark a new wave of growth.

With its renowned universities, thriving tech sector, and the universal appeal of the English language, the UK offers fertile ground for exceptional talent to flourish, and the government has committed to attracting the best and brightest from around the world.

Yet, even with these assets, can the UK sustain its position as a hub for global talent in an increasingly competitive sector?

In order to secure this world leading talent, we need to look in the right places and identify it early on. Nowhere provides better opportunities for this than global competitions known as the International Olympiads. These give high school students across the world the chance to prove their prowess in science and mathematics. Success in these competitions is highly predictive of excellence in later life.

Gold medallists at the International Mathematical Olympiad, for instance, are 50 times more likely to achieve the renowned Fields Medal (the Nobel Prize equivalent in maths) than an average Cambridge PhD student. Futher, groundbreaking ventures like OpenAI, Ethereum and Telegram were all started by founders with Olympiad backgrounds.

The good news is that these young prodigies see the UK as a destination of choice. Our research shows that one in five International Mathematics Olympiad students would pick the UK over any other destination to study as undergraduates – second only to the United States. The bad news is less than one in ten actually make it here.

We need to ask why. The truth is that Britain isn’t focused enough on doing what is needed to attract the best global talent.

Existing systems to attract future science and tech geniuses, such as the UK’s Talent Visa Scheme, though well intentioned, just aren’t working well enough. They lean towards established professionals and often miss emerging talents, especially from countries such as India.

Moreover, financial barriers, including to universities, remain significant for many. As the co-founders of Global Talent Lab, we have spent a decade studying and publishing the success that cutting edge talent delivers for economies and societies. And we’re delighted to be able to launch an innovative scheme to solve this problem.

The ‘Backing Invisible Geniuses’ (BIG) programme offers prodigious young talents from around the world the chance to study at leading institutions such as Cambridge and Imperial. Supported with a founding donation from XTX Markets, and working with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, BIG scholarships will support the undergraduate education for over 30 scholars who – we anticipate – may make this country the hub of their future scientific and entrepreneurial efforts.

BIG offers more than just academic support and scholarships. It opens doors to a vibrant global network including internships, pioneering research, and mentorships that can shape careers. It’s our way of investing in a brighter, more innovative tomorrow.

By matching elite talent with its premier educational establishments, we’re positioning the UK as a hub of innovation. This is an opportunity to ignite a global ‘race to the top’, setting a trend for nations to follow.

By investing in these exceptional young minds, we’re laying the groundwork for progress that transcends national borders. The imperative is clear – to secure a prosperous future, both for the UK and the world, we must excel at identifying global talent and creating an environment that attracts it. Failure to do so could jeopardise our collective competitive edge in the long run.

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Ruchir Agarwal and Patrick Gaule are the Co-Founders of the Global Talent Lab and the Global Talent Network

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