Scotland is justifiably proud of its universities, medical schools and profile in health-related and biomedical research. In 2013-14 the respected QS World Ranking system placed 18 UK universities in its top 100, three of them in Scotland.
In life sciences and medicine, three Scottish universities were ranked in the top 100 with 12 other UK universities.
Scottish medical schools do consistently well in UK comparisons and have particular research strengths in areas such as cancer, heart disease, hospital-based clinical medicine, inflammatory disease, mental health and health services research.
There has been much debate about whether an independent Scotland could maintain the research income from UK sources such as the Research Councils and health-related charities and upon which so much of its success depends.
The following four examples illustrate just how well Scotland does through membership of the UK research funding system.
Firstly, Scottish institutions have done extremely well when competing for UK Research Council grants. In 2012-13 they won £257 million (13.1 per cent) of the funding available. The £83m raised by the University of Edinburgh accounted for a third of its total research income in 2011-12 and exceeded the funding provided by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
Secondly, the most recent UK Clinical Research Collaboration Health Research Analysis (2012) showed that in 2009-10 Scotland won £180m (11.5 per cent) of the funds made available by the 12 largest public and charitable funders of medical research in the UK.
Sources funding Scottish institutions included the Medical Research Council (£66m), the Wellcome Trust (£46m), Cancer Research-UK (£28m), the British Heart Foundation (£4.8m) and the Arthritis Research Council (£2.6m). By comparison, Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office provided £17.6m.
Thirdly, a potent demonstration of Scotland’s ability to fund biomedical research from non-Scottish sources is provided by the Scottish Senior Clinical Fellowship scheme. It is core-funded by SFC and provides salaries for outstanding young clinical academics on the verge of becoming Principal Investigators.
The 18 individuals appointed over the past five years have to date secured no less than £68.7m in external grant income, only £3.6m of which was from “Scotland-only” sources.
Fourthly, major contributions from UK charities, UK Research Councils, the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund and other UK sources have allowed major new building projects to enhance Scotland’s five medical schools and provide state of the art research facilities.
If Scotland withdrew from the UK and created its own Scottish Research Council our research community would be denied its present ability to win proportionately more grant funding than the country contributes to a common research pool.
However, rather than “going it alone”, the Scottish Government aspires to join with the remaining UK in creating a common research funding area.
Even if this could be negotiated, it is highly unlikely the remaining UK would tolerate a situation in which an independent “competitor” country won more money than it contributed to drive its research, develop capital projects and infrastructure, and train its research workforce.
We regard creation of a post-independence common research area as an undertaking fraught with difficulty and one that is unlikely to come to fruition.
We imagine UK fund-raising charities might accept a period of turbulence and financial outlay to develop systems that allowed them to continue to fund-raise in an independent Scotland and support research there.
In the debate about independence it is ironic that Scottish Government is able to speak freely while the heads of our leading research universities (and the umbrella organisation Universities Scotland) and our premier learned society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, have to date felt obliged to remain neutral because they receive Scottish Government funding.
Their silence should not be interpreted as evidence of tacit support for independence on the part of the life sciences research community.
We write as individuals with no party-political agenda but with extensive experience of heading world-leading research groups, units and institutes in Scotland, and participating at the highest level in the work of grant-giving government agencies, UK Research Councils and health-related charities.
Growing out of our profound commitment to Scotland are grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly competitive arena of biomedical research.
Life sciences research provides thousands of high technology jobs; it is now and can undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of the Scottish economy.
We contend that Scotland’s research interests will be much better served by remaining within the common research area called the United Kingdom.
(Prof) Dario Alessi PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) Jean Beggs CBE, PhD, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) Colin Bird CBE, PhD, FRCPath, FMedSci, FRSE
(Prof) Sir Adrian Bird CBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS
Sir David Carter MD, FRCSE, FMedSci, FRSE
(Prof) John Coggins OBE, PhD, FRSE
(Prof) Richard Cogdell PhD, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) Sir Philip Cohen PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) James Garden CBE, MD, FRCSE, FRSE
(Prof) Neva Haites OBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE
(Prof) Nicholas Hastie CBE, PhD, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) Wilson Sibbett CBE, PhD, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) Karen Vousden CBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE, FRS
(Prof) Roland Wolf OBE, PhD, FMedSci, FRSE