Top international scientists have been deterred from traveling to the UK due to a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) scrutiny scheme that is leaving researchers in limbo for months, the Royal Society has warned.

The government’s Academic Technology Approval Scheme (Atas) is designed to prevent the export of technology with potential military applications and was significantly expanded last year amid a national security crackdown. But the long delays are leaving some unable to take on prestigious positions for up to seven months and growing frustration that the problem is damaging the UK’s reputation overseas.

“It is acting as a deterrent,” said Professor Sir Robin Grimes, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Foreign Office. “The great talents are not around. There are many different opportunities in a modern international research facility: the United States, Canada, France, Germany, all of these countries will try to attract the same talent that we are … This is a huge national risk. “

The scheme applies to scientists from all but a handful regions – EU and US academics are exempt – working on “sensitive topics” that are believed to have potential military applications. In practice this includes most of the science of engineering, computer science and materials and a lot of research in physics and biochemistry.

Previously only postgraduate students were required to apply, but last year the rules were extended to cover academics with skilled workers visas, including those already in the UK.

Last year, at least 60 academics, more than half from China, left the UK after the Atas audit identified security concerns, as evidenced by the freedom of information calls to universities.

The FCDO told the Guardian that most applications were processed within 30 days, but declined to provide details on average processing time or backlog.

University leaders say some are facing unacceptable delays. “Universities are trying to be flexible to accommodate those who are late. But in some cases the times are very significant and leave people in limbo for many months, ”said Vivienne Stern, CEO of Universities UK.

There are also concerns about the draconian and opaque nature of the process. Unlike visa applications through the Ministry of the Interior, no reason is given for a refusal and there is indeed no appeal process.

Professor Alasdair McDonald, who works on wind energy at the University of Edinburgh, recently recruited a doctoral student who had to wait five months for authorization. “It’s like there’s a responsible machine learning technique from Atas, with an algorithm that ignores all correspondence, waits for four to seven months, and then randomly rejects a certain percentage of candidates for no clear reason,” he said. he said.

“It seems completely impossible to find out anything about the decision-making process. It is like the chamber of the stars. There is a question mark as to whether the resources are insufficient, “she added.” Or is she trying to put off a certain percentage of people? “

The Guardian listened to scientists who were frustrated with the process. An Indian physicist, who wanted to remain anonymous, recently had his Atas application approved after waiting seven months, during which time he filled out a spreadsheet of 200 fellow applicants, some of whom were facing a similar delay. “I have been in contact with many young aspiring scientists,” he said. “They have resentment since they waited so long.”

Another Indian scientist who applied in early August is still awaiting a post in Cambridge after completing her PhD at a major French institute, winning a prestigious international award and declining a position in Zurich. .

Another, an Egyptian engineer who has worked at Birmingham University for five years, was unable to leave the country because his visa expired during the four months he was awaiting clearance.

Grimes said the Home Secretary’s recent rhetoric on immigration, including a proposed crackdown on postgraduate students, and the cost of UK visas – by far the most expensive of all G7 countries – have given the perception that international scientists were not welcome. “We have to reassure the candidates and say, ‘No, we really want you,'” he said. “It would be helpful if the government made it clear that their desire to reduce immigration is not about … scientific talent comes to the UK.”

A government spokesperson said: “We make every effort to minimize delays in candidates’ studies and most Atas applications are processed within 30 working days. However, waiting times may be longer during our busy periods, so we encourage students to apply early. “

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