POLITICS

Nobel Prize Winner John O'Keefe Hits Out At Strict UK Migration Rules

07/10/2014 12:53 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 13:59 BST

Britain's strict migration rules are a "very, very large obstacle" for those wanting to hire top talent, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist John O'Keefe has warned.

Professor O'Keefe, who won the prize "in physiology or medicine" this week for research into the brain's inner "GPS system", told the BBC that students with academic potential could be "put off by the rhetoric" around immigration in Britain.

The 74-year old neuroscientist, who is a dual US-British citizen, said: "I am very, very acutely aware of what you have to do if you want to bring people into Britain and to get through immigration, I'm not saying it's impossible, but we should be thinking hard about making Britain a more welcoming place."

O'Keefe, who was born in America, described himself as an "immigrant" who had been "very attracted to many aspects of British culture".

john okeefe

Professor John O'Keefe in his lab at University College London

He told the Radio 4 Today programme: "I was attracted by the BBC, I thought it was a terrific institution and still do, the NHS and the Ordnance Survey map.

"I like walking on the weekends and finding my way around and I was also attracted by the diverse culture."

The Nobel laureate has to recruit 150 neuroscientists in his role as head of the new Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for research into neural circuits and behaviour.

"Science is international, the best scientists can come from anywhere, they can come from next door or they can come from a small village in a country anywhere in the world, we need to make it easier," he said.

"Britain punches way above its weight in science and I think we need to continue to do that and anything that makes it easier to bring scientists in will be very welcome."

Professor O'Keefe is not the first of Britain's Nobel prize laureates to be born abroad, as nearly one in four are foreign-born.

Manchester University professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov, who holds both Russian and British citizenship, won the Nobel physics prize in 2010. Meanwhile, British-Cyripot Christopher Pissarides won the Nobel prize for economics in 2010.

In response to O'Keefe's comments, a Home Office spokesman said: "The UK is open to the brightest and best, including talented scientists and engineers, and it is wrong to suggest our policies prevent companies appointing the skilled workers they need.

"Whilst the government has not shied away from taking tough action on abuse, the number of genuinely skilled people coming to the UK to fill skilled vacancies is on the rise."

Professor O'Keefe's comments come amid mounting criticism of the coalition's net migration pledge, which looks almost certainly doomed. David Cameron pledged to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year by 2015, however statistics show that this goal is a long way off.

Mark Hilton, head of immigration policy at non-profit organisation London First, said the net migration target must be "put out of its misery".

Meanwhile Carlos Vargas-Silva, senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, said: "Net migration has increased again, and is now close to the levels when the current Government took office, suggesting that the Government's net migration target of under 100,000 is now effectively impossible to hit.

"The UK's comparatively strong economic growth is attracting EU nationals, who have a right to live and work in the UK, to the British labour market - a very important factor in this increase."