20 Aug 2014   |   Viewpoint

The future of research in Scotland will be ‘better together’

As the 18 September referendum looms closer, Jim Gallacher, emeritus professor at Glasgow Caledonian University, calls for a ‘No’ vote against Scottish independence, saying universities and research will be stronger if Scotland remains part of the UK

(The view of an eminent researcher who believes research and universities in Scotland would be stronger following a ‘Yes’ vote for independence will appear in the next issue)

Higher education in Scotland currently enjoys the best of both worlds, being both integrated into UK higher education, but run independently.

Although  an integral and important part of the world-class UK system - ranked second globally for research in 2011 – Scotland’s higher education system operates separately, with the  Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government having control over all aspects of education policy, and responsibility for higher education being exercised through the Scottish Funding Council for Further and Higher Education.

Within this context, Scotland’s universities have flourished, and the higher education system as a whole can claim to be one of the most successful in the world. Despite a relatively small population of 5.3 million, there are five Scottish universities in the world’s top 200.

Scottish academics also produce more research papers per researcher than most other countries in the world, with over 11,000 research papers produced in 2010.

These achievements reflect in some measure the very positive and progressive policies pursued by successive Scottish Governments and the Scottish Funding Council since the devolution of control over education policy from the central government in London, to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, starting in 1998.

An important example of this would be the way in which the policy of ‘research pooling’, established by the Scottish Funding Council, has enabled the country’s universities to establish research consortia, in which the strengths of different institutions are brought together in a collaborative context, and the achievements of the research community have been enhanced.

Separate yet integrated

This has also enabled the Scottish universities to enjoy a considerable measure of success through their involvement in the wider UK research community. In 2012-13, academics in Scottish universities were awarded £257 million in grants from the UK research councils. This represented 13.1 per cent of total UK grants for 8.4 per cent of the population.

Scottish universities also won 13 per cent of the £1.1 billion research funding distributed by UK charities.
In addition to these very tangible indicators of success, the benefits of Scotland’s involvement with the wider UK higher education system can be seen in a number of other ways. Scotland has profited from being part of the wider UK higher education community, with many successful collaborative ventures between Scottish universities and those based elsewhere in the UK. Scottish-based academics have benefitted from being part of UK research programmes, and Scottish-based academics have held prominent positions in UK research councils.

The period since devolution of powers from the UK government to the Scottish Parliament can been seen as a time when the Scottish universities, while controlling their own affairs through the Scottish Funding Council, have also had all the benefits of being part of the wider UK research community.

Funding research in an independent Scotland

Can this persist if there is a ‘Yes’ vote on 18 September, and Scotland leaves the UK? The Scottish National Party-led government proposes in its White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Future’, that funding for research in an independent Scotland would be based on continuing membership of UK research councils. In this model, tax contributions would be made in proportion to the size of the population, but rewards would depend, as at present, on excellence.

No evidence is provided for the assertion that this model would be acceptable to the UK research councils and the UK government which funds them. Even were agreement to be reached to maintain a joint funding system, it seems difficult to believe that if Scottish universities keep up the present levels of success in winning research grants, a UK government would be happy to tell its electorate that a disproportionate part of taxation was going to fund research in a foreign country.

In its White Paper, the Scottish National Party promised if any funding gap did emerge, Scottish Government investment would be sufficient, “to enable our researchers to remain internationally competitive.” However, as with so many other promises, there are no budgetary details to support this claim.

A further problem exists with access to funding from UK charities. The White Paper claimed that nothing would change were Scotland became independent. However this view is not shared by a number of charities that have expressed a view on this matter. For example, the Wellcome Trust, which has invested over £600 million in Scottish health research over the last decade has said, “There is no guarantee that our funding could be maintained at current levels… the funding that we provide overseas is largely focused at low and middle-income countries.”

Risks to links and collaborations

All of this led three of the most senior figures in academic life in the UK, Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy, and John Tooke, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, to publish an open letter listing their concerns about the possible impact of independence on research in Scotland, and indeed in the wider UK.

In the letter they express concerns about the impact on the Scottish taxpayer of maintaining current levels of research spending, and the risks to, “the strong links and collaborations which exist in the current open system…”. The authors conclude that, while research in all of the UK would suffer, Scotland would be particularly vulnerable and that “there could be significant reductions in range, capacity and critical mass.”

Higher education in Scotland currently has the best of both worlds – control over its own policy with funding through the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council, while enjoying all the benefits of being fully integrated in the UK research infrastructure. To risk all of this for an uncertain future would seem like a risk we should not take.

After all, to settle for less than being a global leader in science is selling Scotland short. It is for this reason that the best and brightest future for Scottish universities is to say “No Thanks” to leaving the UK.

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