Only a ‘Yes’ to independence can protect research in Scotland’s universities

Independence will leave Scotland better-placed to support its universities and enable the country to attract more private R&D funding, says Professor Bryan MacGregor, Vice Principal and Head of the College of Physical Sciences at Aberdeen University

(This is the second of two viewpoints on how the result of the independence referendum will affect research in the country. The first, in favour of voting ‘No’ and keeping Scotland as part of the UK appears HERE)

The debate on the impact that a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming independence referendum will have on research in Scotland’s universities has, thus far, been short of evidence, at least from the ‘No’ side, which has tended to assert versions of the, “too wee, too poor, too stupid”, with - in some cases - a “too clever” variant. Let us consider the evidence.

An independent Scotland will be better placed economically to support its universities. In an analysis of Scotland’s potential after independence, the Financial Times concluded that it would be one of the world’s top 20 richest countries. In contrast, a ‘No’ vote to retain the union with the UK would mean a substantial reduction in university funding in Scotland because of the further planned cuts of £25 billion in UK public sector funding and reductions to the Scottish budget through changes to the formula used to allocate funds to Scotland. That is the real threat to research in Scotland’s universities.

UK research and science budgets are already being cut. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has noted that, “The cumulative erosion of the ring-fenced science budget will be over £1.1 billion … up to 2015/16.”

Funding from UK research councils

Scotland’s share of UK research council funding is cited to show how well Scotland is doing, and to argue that such funding would not continue under independence (too clever but too poor).

Such analyses tend to focus on one category of funding for one year, usually citing the fact that Scotland was awarded 13.1 per cent of research council grants, studentships and fellowships in 2012/13, against a population share of 8.3 per cent. However, the average share awarded to Scotland over the last eight years was somewhat lower, at 12.3 per cent.

In any case, the comparison should not be with overall population, but with the size of the university sector. Scotland has 10.9 per cent of the UK’s full-time academic staff.

The research councils also fund independent research organisations and infrastructure.  Here, Scotland does very badly, receiving an average of 7.6 per cent of funding over the last eight years.

Taking the two categories together, Scotland received 10.6 per cent of research council expenditure in the last eight years. Given that it has 10.9 per cent of academic staff, this is a small under-allocation.

Against Scotland’s 9.2 per cent share of total UK GDP this leaves a potential funding gap of around £35 million.
Charitable funding

Medical research charities are also a large source of funding for university research in the UK. Over the last four years, Scotland received 12.5 per cent of funding from this source against 10.9 per cent of full-time academic staff and 15 per cent of medical schools. As these charities raise funds in Scotland, it would be strange if they did not continue to support Scottish-based researchers. As for endowed charities, it could be argued these are the common assets of the UK but, regardless, why would they not fund the best researchers if they are based in Scotland?

Against other countries, the UK does badly on the percentage of GDP spent on research and development.  As the Campaign for Science and Engineering has noted, “The UK languishes towards the bottom of the G8 and well below the EU-28 average.”

An important dimension of R&D is private sector expenditure and its links to university research. Scotland is the most successful part of the UK in creating new spin-out companies, giving rise to 20 per cent of the start-ups formed over the last ten years. But, despite the quality of its university research and innovation, Scotland accounted for only 3.75 per cent of total private R&D funding from 2001-11. This is a little under half of its population share and an even lower proportion of its GDP share, indicating a branch economy which would only be addressed by independence.

Threat of being out of the EU

If Scotland remains part of the UK, there is also the threat of a ‘No’ vote in the promised in/out referendum on EU membership. The EU is an important and growing source of university research funding. From 2007-13, Scottish universities and research institutes won 10.4 per cent of total UK funding under Framework Programme 7.

Another important issue is Scotland’s international brand. Despite its excellence, the Scottish higher education and research sector is not as visible internationally as it could be, because it is perceived as being part of the overall UK brand. Independence will offer Scotland an opportunity to develop its own quality brand and to attract international students.

So, on the one hand, we have the UK and England contexts - of cuts in research and science funding and the possibility of the loss of EU research funding.

And, on the other, we have a Scottish government committed to funding research and to continued EU membership.

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