President defends internationalism, urges immigration reform in annual address

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Imperial’s President Alice Gast has called for an expansion of European and international research opportunities after Brexit.

President Alice Gast
President Gast called for immigration reform in her annual address

In her annual address to the Imperial community, entitled ‘We Are International’, Professor Gast called on the government to be “ambitious in liberating mobility for academics and students” while securing continued and new European and global research opportunities.

We are witnessing unprecedented political turmoil. We must lift EU research collaborations out of politics. Professor Alice Gast President

She welcomed the government’s announcement of a new ‘Startup Visa’, extending the duration of graduate entrepreneur visas: a reform that President Gast and Imperial have campaigned for. 

She also urged the government to implement science and innovation-friendly policies as the wider immigration system is reformed.

President Gast’s proposals include:

• Creating a “single Tier 1 visa for exceptional researchers, PhD students and graduate entrepreneurs” with no cap on numbers, serving as a “single route for all scientific talent.”

• A “liberated visa sponsorship model” to allow trusted university employers to sponsor talented staff.

• Grant automatic visa sponsorship to all recipients of major international research funding such as the Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation and ERC. Also allowing visas to “follow the researcher so that they can move from one sponsor to another.”

• Two-year post-study work visas for all STEM graduates to “help meet the UK’s £1.5 billion skills shortage and future-proof businesses.”

• Lower salary thresholds for Tier 2 skilled migrant visas for talented staff like Imperial's technicians.

International student at Imperial
International exchanges propel innovation at Imperial

Internationalism and success

Opening the address, President Gast took the chance to celebrate members of the Imperial community who received external awards. This year's winners come from more than 25 countries, she noted. 

Clementine Chambon
External award winners include Dr Clementine Chambon, who was named Royal Society of Chemistry Entrepreneur of the Year

She explained how internationalism is pivotal to Imperial’s success. In the last decade, more than half of the College’s research papers – 105,000 – had international co-authors, spanning 192 countries.

Meanwhile, about two-thirds of Imperial’s corporate support comes from collaborations with businesses outside the UK, while students hail from 130 countries.

Such diversity leads to research breakthroughs, she said. For example, Professor Elio Riboli leads one of the world’s largest cancer cohort studies, involving half a million participants across 10 European countries over two decades, receiving financial support from both the WHO and EU.

Elio Riboli
Professor Elio Riboli is leading one of the world's biggest cancer studies - across 10 European countries

Professor Gast said that Professor Riboli’s “European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) is showing that a diet based on fruit, vegetables, whole grains and moderate consumption of poultry and fish reduces risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

"Our new School of Public Health in White City will bring this international insight to West London where over 120 languages are spoken in communities having a variety of traditions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.”

Another outstanding researcher, Professor Molly Stevens, “leads a research group made up of academics from more than 25 countries.

Molly Stevens group
Professor Molly Stevens' group is made up of academics from more than 25 countries.

Their different cultural and disciplinary perspectives have helped the Stevens Group to transform the development of biosensors and brought bioengineering approaches to regenerative medicine.”

Different cultures, new insights

Jason Hallett
Professor Jason Hallett's research depends on his multinational team of scientists

President Gast quoted chemical technologist Professor Jason Hallett, whose multinational group “bring their personal history wherever they go.”

President Gast added: “I firmly believe that collaborations are important not only across disciplines, but also across cultures. They bring new combined insights, lead to new approaches and help create new discoveries”.

Global heritage

President Gast reminded the audience that immigration and international influences – from Africans in Shakespeare’s London to the Huguenots to post-WW2 immigration – are nothing new to this city and university.

She said: “Even before the College’s founding in 1907, our constituent institutions included notable faculty and students from abroad,” such as the German founding director of the Royal College of Chemistry August Wilhelm von Hofmann, who was personally recruited by Prince Albert in 1845 and went on to teach William Perkin.

By 1925, almost 10% of Imperial’s students came from parts of the British Empire, with a further 6% coming from other nations.

Hiru Patel, now aged 99, “undertook the long journey on foot, by plane and boat from India to London, where he began study in Mechanical Engineering.

His PhD thesis in Aeronautics developed our understanding of ‘flutter’, the unstable oscillation on the wing of an aircraft during flight.

Hiralal Patel
Hiralal Patel studied Mechanical Engineering after travelling to London from India

He returned to India as a proud alumnus and became a pioneer in the plastics industry. In 2016, thanks to his family’s generosity, Hiru’s legacy grows with the Dr Hiralal N Patel Wind Tunnel. I gave him a new copy of his PhD thesis, still relevant 75 years after it was published,” she said.

Immigrant innovators

One source of economic success in Silicon Valley and the Boston area “is that American entrepreneurs are working side-by-side, or often led by, foreign-born talent.”

This spirit holds at Imperial, President Gast noted. Here, international students and staff are significantly more likely to file patents and start companies than their peers.

These include Indian design engineer Malav Sanghavi who, after following in Hiru Patel’s footsteps many decades later, “founded LifeCradle to create a neonatal incubator that is 90% less expensive than existing incubators and can be used as a cot when incubation is no longer needed.”

Science diplomacy

President Gast spoke of her experiences of “science diplomacy”, including in her former role as US Science Envoy to Central Asia and the Caucasus: “Wherever I travelled, I was warmly welcomed by the scientists, academics, community members and fellow university leaders I met. I will never forget the young people who came to my ‘chai chat’ in Tashkent with impressive questions and exciting ideas.”

Alice Gast having tea in Uzbekistan as US Science Envoy
Science diplomat: Alice Gast taking tea in Uzbekistan as US Science Envoy

The address was delivered as President Gast was appointed Chair of the Newton Prize Committee: “I am pleased to help with this important mission to recognise excellent science, research and innovation in support of economic development and social welfare in Newton Fund partner countries.” 

President's address
The President's address celebrated members of the Imperial community who received external awards

President Gast said: “A network of respect and pride binds universities, laboratories, and research groups. It is true that, through our common search for discovery and our common language, academics and scientists can indeed be diplomats.

Sir Philip Dilley
Imperial's Chair of Council Sir Philip Dilley introduced President Gast

“I believe that this is still true today and is more important than ever. I am proud that Imperial is making its international engagement a high priority. We have new and growing collaborations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. And, we are augmenting and strengthening our collaborations in Europe and the Americas.”

Dealing with uncertainty

Despite current political uncertainty around Brexit, President Gast made it clear that Imperial “will continue to establish partnerships and collaborations in Europe and throughout the world. We call upon government to expand opportunities to support international students and scholars and to foster and fund international collaborations.”

Imperial academics published breakthroughs with peers from 191 countries in three years between 2015 and 2017.
Imperial academics published breakthroughs with peers from 191 other countries in three years between 2015 and 2017.

The College will “vigorously defend our right to collaborate with international partners. Apart from national security concerns or government restrictions, we will work with others to further research, education and science diplomacy, no matter where they are from,” she said.

The President concluded: “Our international community, our collaborations and partnerships, and our own experiences in other cultures and places have an immeasurable and profound effect on the world.

"We have a great heritage of mixing people, views, ideas and cultures to create wonderful discoveries, insights and works. We must ensure that such synergy continues for our benefit, and for the benefit of society.”

Read the full text of the President's Address 2019. 


Stephen Johns

Stephen Johns
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Andrew Scheuber

Andrew Scheuber
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