SCOTLAND’S universities could continue to access lucrative UK research funding following independence, according to the principal of one of the country’s leading institutions.
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, principal of Aberdeen University, said there was “no question” Scotland could remain part of Research Councils UK should Scots vote yes in next year’s referendum.
Professor Diamond, a former chairman of the Research Councils UK executive group, was asked to report on the issue for the Scottish Government ahead of its White Paper on independence, due to be published shortly.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, he said there was a precedent for single research areas that crossed national boundaries.
Doubts have previously been raised about whether Scotland’s universities could continue to access funding from UK research councils should the country become independent. Last year, constitutional expert Alan Trench, a senior research fellow at University College London, said institutions north of the Border would no longer be able to access the “hugely disproportionate” levels of funding they receive from Research Councils UK following independence.
Some of the country’s larger universities, including Edinburgh and Glasgow, currently receive up to 40 per cent of their funding from the body, which is made up of seven research councils, including the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Medical Research Council.
But Professor Diamond said it would be possible to set up a “single research area” similar to those already in operation elsewhere in the EU.
Asked if Scottish universities could remain part of the research councils following independence, he said: “There’s no question – if that was what was wanted. I can’t see it’s in the interests of anyone in the rest of the UK to want to exclude Scotland, nor is it in the interest of Scotland to be excluded from collaboration. You need to freely and easily be able to collaborate across the UK. Knowledge does not know state boundaries. It seems to me it could be done fairly straightforwardly.
“It does require a will on both sides of what would then be a national divide. It would be one of very many negotiations that would be needed to be had.”
Professor Diamond, a former chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, said research partnerships already existed across nation states.
His own university received £57.8m in research grants and contracts in 2011/12 – 27 per cent of its income for that year.
“At one level, one might call the European Research Council one,” he said. “In a smaller way, there’s also an agreement across Scandinavia.”
Despite confidence over Scotland’s continued role in the research councils, it is still unclear how the new set-up would be funded.
Currently, Research Councils UK is funded by the taxpayer through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with Scottish institutions consistently winning 12 per cent or more of its total funding, despite the country having about 8.5 per cent of the UK’s population.
In 2010-11, Scottish institutions received £232 million from the councils, or 15 per cent of the £1.56bn pot of research grants available to all UK universities.
A spokeswoman for umbrella group Universities Scotland said: “Whatever constitutional future the people of Scotland decide, our priority in regards to research is that universities continue to have access to research funding at a level that allows them to compete on the world stage and to remain part of the research ecosystem that transcends national borders.
“Universities are currently involved in research partnerships at Scottish, UK, European and international level. This strengthens the quality of research and development and needs to continue under any constitutional settlement.
“We have no doubt that all political parties in Scotland will want to support universities to continue to punch above their weight in research as they all understand the economic and societal returns that university research delivers for Scotland.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government added: “Scotland has an unrivalled record of success in attracting funding, reflecting the excellence and global reputation of our universities, and that will continue with independence.
“Only Switzerland is ranked as having more world-class universities per head of population than Scotland if you look at the Times Higher Education listing.
“Our commitment to support our universities and to recognise the full impact of their research is widely recognised in the sector.
“We fully understand and recognise the importance of stability in long-term funding for world-class researchers and will be bringing forward our detailed proposals on enhancing research funding and reach as we move towards the referendum.”
Earlier this year, The Institute of Physics (IoP) in Scotland, with 3,000 members, warned Scottish scientists risk losing access to internationally renowned facilities should voters back independence.
THE IoP said the Scottish Government would be forced to renegotiate access to facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland and space missions of the European Space Agency.
A spokeswoman for Research Councils UK said the body would not comment on the implications of Scottish independence.
“It is too early for us to comment at this stage,” she said. “We continue to work with the Scottish Funding Council and other partners.”