Visa Crunch

As Covid-19 Restrictions Eases, Scientific ‘Battle For Talent’ Gears-Up

As the globe recovers in fits and starts from a pandemic-induced slowdown in international migration, countries, and universities are once again involved in a competition for talent over scientists, innovators, and students.

In response to the need to be on the cutting edge of new technologies such as artificial intelligence in an age of geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China, a slew of countries have announced new academic recruitment drives, visa schemes, and open-door policies in the last six months to poach the brightest minds.

“There is increasing competition for talented individuals, and there is no doubt it will be with us for the foreseeable future,” said Ian Walmsley, Provost of Imperial College London, which launched a new program in December to recruit up to four short-term “visiting professors” from black and underrepresented backgrounds.

“If you want to be in the game, clever people are the major motor, generating new ideas and chances,” he explained.

Countries are becoming more conscious of how emerging technologies such as machine learning will affect the future, which is prompting them to hire. Canada announced intentions last month to hire 1,000 more academics to support, among other things, life sciences and biomedical research. This should significantly increase the size of the Canada Research Chairs Program, which has established 2,285 professorships since 2000.

When with Imperial College, the motivation is not only competitiveness, but also diversity, and as Canada employs, there will be an “emphasis on enhancing gender and racial equity among teachers.”

Last July, a post-Brexit UK unveiled a new strategy to “make the UK the most exciting environment in the world for academics to thrive and pursue cutting edge research,” promising to reduce research red tape, increase career development possibilities, and combat harassment and discrimination. Simultaneously, it announced plans for a new “high potential individual” visa open to graduates of a “top global university,” a criterion that remains unclear even if they have not secured a job in the UK.

This comes on the heels of the development of a “global talent visa” the previous year to tempt recipients of special prizes such as the Nobel Prize, as well as scientists, artists, and IT prodigies backed by organizations such as the Royal Society.

In December, Spain revealed a draught “startup law” that would grant a unique sort of visa to firm founders, employees, investors, and “digital nomads” for up to five years.

The proposal also promises company and income tax savings for startups, as well as simplified bureaucracy. Greece, Mexico, and Caribbean countries have also lately adopted visas to lure “digital nomads,” according to Jean-Christophe Dumont, the OECD’s head of international mobility.

“The goal is to attract young, highly skilled individuals. Approximately 30 OECD countries also have very inviting start-up visas. It’s pretty much an open door,” Dumont remarked.

As travel has returned to normal, international students are also being targeted. Finland announced in December that it aimed to attract much more overseas students and that it planned to strengthen their rights to work while studying and to prolong the post-graduation visa to assist them in finding work.

According to a British Council report from last year, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are facing increased competition from non-English speaking countries for students who wish to study in English.

Almost one in every five English programs are now available outside of the ‘big four’ Anglophone countries, with course offerings increasing by 77 per cent since 2017, peaking last year as the pandemic receded.

China’s offering has nearly fivefold expanded during this time period, and the survey projects that the country would overtake continental Europe by the end of the decade. This rivalry for researchers and innovators is, in some ways, nothing new. A McKinsey consultant invented the phrase “battle for talent” in 1997, and it has been used numerous times since.

Permanent immigration to OECD countries plunged more than 30% to its lowest level since 2003 in 2020, as governments halted flights and instituted stringent testing and quarantine regimes to combat the spread of coronavirus, according to an October report by the organization.

Although there is no precise data on researcher mobility, Dumont believes that highly skilled individuals have been hurt significantly more. Students were also unable to travel. The number of study permits issued in OECD EU nations declined by 40% in 2020, and by 70% in the US and Canada. There is “definitely a battle” for the highly skilled, according to Dumont, though he notes that migration has been returning to normal, albeit haphazardly, since the third quarter of 2020.

Another motivating reason behind the race for minds is the geopolitical conflict between the United States and China, which heightened during the pandemic. Concerns of losing a skilled workforce battle have grown in the United States in recent years, prompting a slew of think-tank and academic publications, exhortations from the Biden administration to act, and a slew of legislative initiatives.

The necessity for immediate action is especially pressing in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The National Science and Technology Council, a US government advisory organization, observed in an October 2021 report on quantum technology that over half of the country’s quantum-related graduates are foreigners.

Last year, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence declared that immigration reform is a “national security necessity.” China’s talent competitiveness is a major source of concern in the United States.

According to the CSIS assessment, China’s technology investment is on the verge of surpassing that of the United States, and it is already producing more home-grown science and technology graduates than the United States.

Immigration reform, according to CSIS, is critical to the United States’ long-term strength. Despite the US tech booms since then, Washington’s immigration restrictions “have not fundamentally changed since the 1990s,” according to the research.

“Under the current system, an Indian STEM PhD holder who obtains a job offer today will face an 84-year wait” for a green card.

However, during the 2000s, Beijing has attempted to entice western-educated Chinese scholars and businesspeople to return home through efforts like the Thousand Talents program.

Furthermore, according to Dumont, the country has recently set its eyes on attracting foreign scientists, albeit with minimal success in academics. President Xi Jinping stated in December that the country would “exhaust all methods” to attract global talent.

Admittance and living conditions may hinder China’s aim to become a hub for international talent for the time being. One such impediment is China’s tenacious zero-COVID policy, which has turned even short business travels into a bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork and quarantine.

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