At the launch of a new exhibition at the Francis Crick Institute to celebrate the contributions that technical staff make to science, Director Paul Nurse warns that the UK’s post-Brexit visa system could put a ‘backbone’ of scientific research at risk.
The Crick employs 577 technical specialists across the institute – around half of the scientific workforce. They perform a wide range of vital tasks, from washing scientific glassware to running complex experiments, and 71% (408) are ‘skilled’ according to the UK government definition.
More than a quarter (27%, 112) of the Crick’s skilled technical staff are from Europe, and did not need to meet visa requirements when they came to the UK. However, once European freedom of movement ends, they will go through the same visa system as people from other countries.
The government is currently consulting on post-Brexit immigration policy, including a minimum salary threshold of £30,000 before granting a skilled worker visa. The starting salary for many skilled technical roles at the Crick is £27,000, and salaries for lower skilled technicians and those who work outside of London can be significantly lower. Data from the Russell Group indicates around 27% of skilled technicians at their universities across the UK earn £25,000 or less.
Speaking at the launch of the Crick’s new exhibition, Craft & Graft: Making Science Happen, Paul Nurse emphasises the importance of technical staff in science and warns that crucial specialists could be ‘locked out’ by arbitrary thresholds.
“I began my scientific career as a seventeen-year-old laboratory technician, so I really understand what technical staff contribute to research,” says Paul Nurse. “Engineers, technicians and other research specialists make up a significant part of our workforce and without them the science we do here would be impossible. Our new exhibition aims to celebrate their important work and give them the recognition that they deserve.
“We have almost six hundred technical staff here at the Crick. They are a backbone of our scientific research and more than a hundred come from Europe. To do the best science, we need the best people – at all levels.
“If we bring people from other European countries into the current visa system without a complete overhaul, it will simply collapse. Any future system that includes Europeans needs to be much simpler, faster and less expensive, and must not lock out skilled technical staff based on arbitrary salary thresholds. If British science is to succeed after Brexit, we need to keep the door open to talented people from around the world who come here to contribute to our science and our economy.”
Research at the Crick relies on technical specialists across the building, both embedded in research groups and working in specialist facilities. The Cell Services team supports 72 labs – around 700 scientists – growing and nurturing billions of cells used in research. French-born antibody specialist Thomas Martinez is a key member of the team.
“I work with thousands of different cell lines, supporting scientists on a range of projects from cancer research to developmental biology,” explains Thomas. “I love my job, but I was only able to come here thanks to freedom of movement. In the future, I really hope that people like me will still be able to come to the UK to help researchers trying to understand and treat life-threatening diseases.”
Thomas is featured in the Crick’s new exhibition, Craft & Graft: Making Science Happen, which showcases the people who work around the clock to make life-changing research possible. The exhibition focuses on five key teams who perform vital functions around the building every year, including:
- Feeding 1.5 million flies.
- Growing billions of cancer cells for research.
- Cleaning 750,000 flasks, test-tubes and beakers.
- Fixing 3,000 pieces of cutting-edge equipment.
- Collecting and analysing thousands of microscopic images.
The free exhibition runs from 1 March 2019 until 30 November 2019. Visitors will see five typical workbenches which have been specially created with tools and equipment, short films, personal interviews, imagery and interactive exhibits to bring the stories and skills of these teams to life.