Iain Gray: Wide horizons for a new flowering of science

COMMENTATORS daily demand a referendum debate on “substantive issues, not process”.
A youngster gets to grips with circuitry at the Edinburgh Science Festival. Picture: Esme AllenA youngster gets to grips with circuitry at the Edinburgh Science Festival. Picture: Esme Allen
A youngster gets to grips with circuitry at the Edinburgh Science Festival. Picture: Esme Allen

Some of the process questions, such as “do we have to reapply to Nato and the EU?” are quite important, but anyway, there are now debates happening on every substantive aspect of independence you can imagine, if you look hard enough.

However, if you organise your debate on Easter Monday you cannot be surprised if you don’t get widely noticed. That is what the Edinburgh Science Festival did with a referendum debate on “Scottish Science and Innovation”, where I joined Professor Hugh Pennington of e-coli fame to argue the Better Together case.

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Hugh made a powerful case that Scottish science, by dint of its excellence, captures far more than its share of UK research funding, about 12 per cent. Disaggregation of these funds on a population basis would leave our researchers competing for a smaller funding pot. He is right – Scotland is third in the world at producing peer-reviewed research, and also punches above its weight in giant projects such as Cern through the UK contribution.

This is about more than money though. Scottish thinkers and scientists, emerging from the Calvinist fundamentalism of the 17th century seized the Union as a gateway to the world.

David Hume mused: “Is it not strange that at a time when we have lost our princes, our parliaments, our independent government, we should really be the people most distinguished for literature in Europe?” He thought it strange but knew it was true, and by literature he did not mean romantic novels, rather the ideas which shaped the modern world.

When Voltaire said, “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”, he could as well have said, “look to Scotland in the Union”, and he was thinking of scientific ideas as well as the philosophy of Hume and economics of Adam Smith. The likes of Black, Hutton, and later Lord Kelvin and Clerk Maxwell forged the scientific ideas which underpin daily life today.

Scotland’s practical innovators also saw, and seized, the opportunity of Great Britain. James Watt conceived his improved steam engine in his head in Glasgow, but he built it in steel in Birmingham, because that was the centre of an industry desperate for it.

The crowning achievements of engineers like Telford and Rennie may have been Scottish canals, but they also availed themselves of England’s roads, bridges and ports projects to make their vision real.

In the 21st century those opportunities remain. Take renewable energy, where we are creating new Scottish science and technology on the foundation of a single UK energy network which shares research and development costs between 63 million people instead of five million.

The real question, and this was where our debate ended up, is whether we still have the wit and the will to take these opportunities as our predecessors of the Enlightenment did.

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If the Union was Scottish science’s big chance, the capacity to take it had been created by the establishment of a school in every parish and the network of already ancient universities. The path which took Clerk Maxwell to the Cavendish Chair of Physics saw him produce his first scientific paper at school and matriculate at Edinburgh University at 16.

Scotland still produces dazzling science, from Dolly the sheep to the Higgs boson, and there is no reason why we cannot aspire to Enlightenment-level heights of technological leadership again. To do so, we must exploit the platform of the UK anew, and in order to do that, prioritise science and technology education.

I recently returned to my first profession, as a science teacher, when Law primary school in North Berwick asked me to deliver a science lesson to P4 and P5. This launched a week of activities as part of national science week. I enjoyed my lesson in calculating the speed of light using a microwave and chocolate buttons; I hope the pupils did too. They were hugely enthusiastic and impressively knowledgeable, and boys and girls were equally interested. When I was a physics teacher in secondary schools, I struggled to disabuse girls of the idea that physics was a “boys’ subject”. That prejudice was immovable by the time they were 14.

The lesson is that we must be more systematic about science teaching in primary schools, to inspire youngsters, especially girls, before it is too late. That requires work in teacher training to give primary teachers the confidence to deliver science day in day out, not just for special occasions. It also means equipping our primary schools for science. It is all very well showing how science is part of the everyday, but you cannot teach much with the old microwave out of the staffroom. The Scottish government invested £23,000 in science week, better than nothing, but hardly serious money.

In fairness, they also contribute to a number of school-based science festivals, one of which, in Dunbar Primary, I attended along with 4,000 other participants over a full week. This is a remarkable event, initiated and run by parents, in its third year and involving universities, colleges and local science-based employers.

These are all initiatives that have the potential to drive a new flowering of Scottish science, but that will not happen through occasional science weeks or festivals; it needs a sustained focus on improving science education. Dunbar parents realise that and are already thinking about building their festival into a science “academy” linking youngsters to science based workplaces and the opportunities they provide.

The case put by our separatist opponents on Easter Monday seemed to be that a small independent country would automatically be better at science, as if Scottish science and innovation is too fragile, oppressed and marginalised by the UK to flourish. Tell that to Hutton, Clerk Maxwell, Watt, and Peter Higgs. What we need is the will, national and political, to support science at every level and the confidence that if we do so, Scotland will once again lead not just the UK but the world in science.

• Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian.