Ines Figueiredo moved to the UK from Portugal in 2011 to work at The Institute of Cancer Research.

Ines Figueiredo, originally from Portugal, works as a research scientist at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, where she focuses on prostate cancer. Typical of cancer research projects in the UK, Ines is part of a multinational team and works with scientists based across the globe. 

With the Government redesigning the immigration system, a change that will apply to all scientists coming to the UK for research purposes, we spoke to Ines about her experiences of moving to and working in the UK.

“Working at the ICR is amazing. I get to work with incredible people and every day you learn new things.”

A big draw for Ines was getting to work in a diverse research team, bringing together a unique mix of skills and expertise from across the world. “My team is so international – there are scientists from all over the world at the ICR working to accelerate progress in cancer research.”

Ines works as a higher scientific officer, collecting and analysing tissue samples from patients and splits her time between assisting clinical trials and working in the lab.

Research teams with a mix of UK and international researchers, like Ines’, have been key to driving progress in cancer survival. In the 1970s, 1 in 4 survived their cancer for 5 years or more compared to 1 in 2 today, a shift that’s been underpinned by increasingly international teams – drawing talent from around the world.

And this holds true today: 50% of PhD students and 76% of post-doctoral researchers we fund at Cancer Research UK are not originally from the UK.

UK research is international

Ines’ route to working in the UK was an interesting one: “I applied to the EU Da Vinci programme in 2011, which paid for EU citizens to take up research positions in another EU country. I was successful and got my first choice of England.”

Ines was subsequently offered a permanent position at the ICR and has worked there ever since, gaining promotion along the way. “For me, it’s all about helping patients. If my research and work can give patients extra time to look forward to after they’ve received a diagnosis, that, for me, is a great thing.”

To drive progress, her team works with research groups from around the world. “We have a lot of collaborative projects with teams from across the world – in Europe, in the US and in Australia.” This lets scientists in different countries share tissue samples, which Ines says can help to “bring together different pieces of a puzzle from across the world”.

And the collaboration isn’t limited to sharing samples. “Colleagues sometimes go to labs abroad for 2 or 3 months to learn a specific technique or skill before coming back. And people come to our labs and train before returning to their lab, too.”

For Ines this is vitally important, as it allows UK scientists to travel abroad and learn techniques where there might not be expertise in the UK to do so.

‘It could definitely be more difficult’

Ines at the 2012 Olympics in London. Ines has loved her time at the ICR so far, but she’s concerned for when the UK withdraws from the EU. “It could definitely be more difficult, depending on what the relationship will be like with the EU,” she says.

Under current proposals, it’s not clear if scientists like Ines would have been allowed into the UK, as she had a relatively low wage when joining the ICR. And even for those scientists who do earn enough to meet proposed immigration controls, they would have to pay relatively high visa fees compared to other leading science nations.

While Government have said they want to introduce a new visa for scientific talent, which we’ve blogged about before, it’s not clear if this will include all levels of researchers.

Ines is also concerned about funding. Her team receives a variety of grants and research funding, with a core part of this coming from the EU. She’s worried that UK-based scientists may lose access to this type of funding, which could not only hurt research projects like hers but also have a knock-on effect on enticing scientists to live and work in the UK.  “If we don’t qualify to get these grants then it’s already bad, but this could also mean we can’t attract the people who have the experience and expertise and are willing to work.”

She also has questions about how the UK will be able to participate in clinical trials involving the EU, which could have a big impact on her team.

And more personally, Ines also worries that visiting her family in Europe will become more difficult. “I love my life and my friends here, but if it wasn’t easy to travel back to Portugal to see my family, I wouldn’t be here.”

Ines is one of over 4,000 scientists, nurses and doctors supported by Cancer Research UK to help us beat cancer. To continue making significant progress towards that goal, Government must design a new, modern immigration system that encourages skilled international scientists to come to the UK and build an environment where scientific endeavour can thrive.

Ben Moore is a policy advisor at Cancer Research UK