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Susan Shaw: Scots can make big difference in UK

Scotland is a world leader in scientific research. Picture: Hemedia

Scotland is a world leader in scientific research. Picture: Hemedia

  • by SUSAN SHAW
 

WALKING away from the UK means abandoning a funding system and infrastructure that has created a global leader in scientific research, writes Susan Shaw

I HAVE dedicated my life to academia, working in three Scottish universities over 40 years. It has been rewarding and humbling to see the successful development of Scottish universities over this period and the way in which they punch above their weight, both within the UK and internationally.

This owes much to the highly talented and committed academics in our universities. But it has been underpinned by the UK research funding system – widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world, and the large-scale research infrastructure which we have shared with the rest of the UK. I wish to express in the strongest terms my passionate belief that the best and brightest future for our world-leading education sector is as part of the UK.

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It is because of our excellence that we do very well. But don’t believe that this would simply continue if we walk away from our partnership within the UK. In the most recent year, Scottish universities won UK Research Councils grants worth £257 million – 13.1 per cent of all awards to researchers in a nation with 8.4 per cent of the UK population. The Research Councils have themselves clarified their position following “misleading” quotes attributed to their chief executive by the Scottish Government. Their position is clear that “Should there be a vote for independence the current system could not continue.” Those of us who value Scotland’s success see this as a very big reason for staying.

A similar story holds true with the national charities which deservedly hold a special place in our national life. While perhaps the potential risks and uncertainties around funding are less intuitively obvious, they remain very real. In medical research, Scotland receives 13 per cent of UK-wide charitable funding, around £143m a year. This support has helped Scottish medical schools lead UK comparisons. Our institutions hold particular research strengths in areas such as cancer, heart disease and mental health services. In life sciences and medicine, three Scottish universities were ranked in the world’s top 100 alongside 12 other UK universities. We are all part of this success. The sponsored runner in Newcastle who raises funding for medical research done in Glasgow that helps someone in Swansea proves the strength of this partnership and in no way short-changes Scotland.

Having celebrated our successes it is only prudent to consider the risks inherent in an uncertain leap into the dark. The warnings expressed by 14 of the world’s leading scientists who are based here in Scotland should hold our attention. More recently, we had the most senior figures in UK science speak out. When the Presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy, and the Academy of Medical Sciences raise concerns we should listen.

Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, has made a very personal case for rejecting separation. His career is testament to collaboration and opportunities across the UK moving us a step closer to beating cancer. The only conclusion possible is that the most eminent experts are all lining up against the risks of leaving the UK because it would diminish not just Scotland but the whole UK.

NO POSITION AT-A-GLANCE

• Decisions over our schools, colleges and world-leading universities are taken by the Scottish Parliament.

• Our world-class universities excel through big UK research funding. UK Research Councils spend 13 per cent of their funds in Scotland, far more than our 8 per cent population share. A vote to leave the UK means walking away from this support.

• If Scotland left the UK and joined the EU, charging students from the rest of the UK tuition fees would become illegal. This would not only create a budget shortfall, but would either force the introduction of tuition fees or, put places for Scottish students at risk.

Leading UK charities have also expressed concerns. The Association of Medical Research Charities represents more than 120 leading charities including the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust. The umbrella organisation has questioned the risks that this uncertainty is posing to medical research funding and clinical trials in particular. The Wellcome Trust, a major source of funding for medical research in particular, is clear that future support would have to be reviewed because it does not fund research outside the UK to the same extent.

Consideration of the Nationalists’ proposals provides no clarity, let alone comfort. Only ten of the 42 paragraphs devoted to universities and research in the Nationalists’ White Paper describe post-independence plans. Five deal with tuition fees and the wish to keep the status quo by continuing to exclusively charge students from the continuing UK. This is a flawed proposal which the European Union, EU legal experts, and the former director of Universities Scotland have all said would fall foul of EU law. This decision therefore is not just about top-class science – it is about the opportunities open to every student in Scotland. They benefit from better universities and rewarding careers should they enter the academy. The practical impact of separation would, however be more immediate, forcing the introduction of tuition fees or a drastic fall in places for Scottish students.

Leaving the UK means leaving a research system that ranks second to the US in achievement and is the world leader in delivery per pound because of intense competition in a big system that gets significant support from both the UK Government and UK charities. Neither would survive independence unaffected; therefore for science the outlook is bleak.

To settle for less than being a world-leader in research is selling Scotland short. There is a better choice. I firmly believe that a future within the UK promises greater achievements than one apart. It is for these reasons that with considered confidence I will say no thanks to breaking our successful partnership on 18 September.

• Emeritus Professor Susan Shaw is former deputy and vice-principal of the University of Strathclyde

 

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