Scotland’s economy: Prof Jim McDonald: Calling all bright sparks

JIM McDonald is having another busy day. Strolling into his office in Glasgow’s Merchant City, the principal of Strathclyde University talks about his previous visitor that day – a senior minister in Hong Kong’s education department.

There are, explains Professor McDonald, eight research universities in the former British colony. The Chinese minister had travelled all the way to Scotland to find out how best to link them together, so as to create one big research hub. He had come to Glasgow, because this was the place to come and find out.

The all-conquering East coming to the declining, tired old West for lessons on how to innovate? Seriously? Absolutely, insists the professor.

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Received perceptions that currently dominate gloomy European minds as to the inevitability of our decline are wrong. “Take manufacturing,” he declares. “There’s clear examples, both across Europe and North America, that many manufacturing companies across many sectors are repatriating manufacturing bases from the Middle and Far East. Why are they doing that? There are some examples that they are coming back here because they want access to the innovation systems that we have here.”

It’s understandable, he adds, that companies have headed east in search of lower costs. But now, those same firms are realising that they need the expertise, research base and talent to be found Scotland and the UK if they want to keep pace with new technologies.

“These manufacturing companies innovate or die,” declares Prof McDonald. The anecdote and the optimistic assessment say a lot about Strathclyde University’s energetic principal, a man who is fast earning a reputation as one of the key players in Scotland’s economic recovery.

A dapper Glaswegian, born and bred in the city, he is the antithesis of the scholarly academic writing esoteric research papers on issues that never see the light of day. He likes to to remind people of Strathclyde’s original purpose: to be a “place of useful learning”. Under his leadership, Strathclyde has been described as “the MIT on the Clyde”; in reference to the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

The idea is simple: pack a technological university with expert academics and technology whizz-kids and then give them the wherewithal to come up with the ideas and solutions that can help to drive business and industry.

McDonald’s own personal mission is as a kind of academic Fix-It Man; both by creating the links between academia and industry, and the links between academic institutions themselves, all the better to create a nationwide brains trust. The idea is that this then forms a critical mass of expertise and knowledge, all the better to catch the eye of the big multi-national players looking for some fertile land to occupy.

A member of Scottish Enterprise’s board and the chair of Glasgow Economic Leadership, he comes across less as a stuffy academic than an ambitious entrepreneur. If Scotland is to earn its way back to financial good health, it relies on the likes of Prof McDonald to haul industry and knowledge together in the hope of producing a spark.

The principal drips buzz words. “Convergence” is one. “Pooling” is another. The fundamental point is that the chemistry of the country’s various sectors, working together, leads to a bigger bang than when they work separately. “If we then connect the public sector, private sector and academic base around key opportunities, that is when the real multipliers come.”

There is a sense that people now get this, he says. “What has accelerated is the fact we recognise that we are stronger together in many areas.”

A good example is the energy sector. With Alex Salmond, he chairs Scotland’s Energy Advisory Board. He is also chair of the cross-University Energy Technology Partnership, which brings together university researchers under one umbrella. It is this “collective research strength”, right across Scotland, with the right organisation at the top, which is now responsible for attracting many foreign companies to set up shop here, he says.

They see the talent, the research base, all wrapped together with a big political hug, and decided to set up shop. “For the likes of Mitsubishi, Gamesa, Siemens, Samsung, we are talking about the easy access to world-class research capability, and that gives us a distinct advantage,” he says.

This capability also ensured, last month, that Strathclyde won the competition to become the home of the UK government’s grandly titled “Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult”, another £50 million project to fund academics to bridge the gap between paper dreams and money-making energy projects. The way Scotland’s universities work together on all this gives the country an edge, he believes. “Our research pooling is the envy of Europe.”

And it isn’t just in energy. “In life sciences, in engineering, in physical sciences, the universities can be a very important catalyst for change.”

Scotland cannot compete on price with developing nations, but it can deliver expertise and quality at a competitive premium. The raw materials are all there, insists Prof McDonald. “We have very high-quality students; the entry requirements here for an MEd in Engineering is 4As and a B. We attract and maintain excellent students.”

Scotland also punches well above its weight in its top-quality research, he argues – borne out by new figures showing that higher education research and development spending in Scotland is now 13.6 per cent of the UK’s, well ahead of its population share. “We have a scientific and engineering and technology research base that is among the very best in the world. It’s not us saying that, it is the statistics around academic performance – patents, publications, at the top end.” On top of that, he argues, the universities, the private and the public sectors are all now working much better together to turn all this into something tangible.

He has his own pet projects. Near Glasgow Airport, he praises the university’s unsnappily titled Advanced Forming Research Centre, paid for by public-sector investment from the likes of Scottish Enterprise, and private backing from Boeing and Rolls Royce. There, university academics work with firms to (literally) knock out new technologies for their production lines.

Then there is Strathclyde’s newest toy; its new Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC), currently being built in Glasgow’s city centre. As with the AFRC, academics and businesses will sit down together to come up with new ideas and products in everything from climate change to nano-technology.

“This is being noticed in North America. because it replicates how Stanford words with industry. Our colleagues in MIT are recognising not just the quality, but the scale of our investment. And it allows us to sit with Singua University in China, the number one there, and exchange information.

“TIC is transformational for Strathclyde,” says Prof McDonald.

There are some broad lessons for Scotland in this success, as the country attempts to find a way back to growth. “A real key piece in this is leadership,” he says. “There’s clearly a responsibility for political leadership and we hear the strong messages from the Scottish Government about partnership and focus. I welcome that.”

There’s also a need for all these leaders to work to a shared, bigger goal. “If you look at the leadership in universities and industry, for me we are starting to see that convergence, and that is a very powerful phenomenon. There is a real opportunity now to accelerate the convergence (that word again) around some real opportunities for Scotland.”

It is a very different message to that of the doom-and-gloom merchants. The trouble is, the figures don’t lie, with more and more youngsters now finding themselves on the jobs scrapheap. Prof McDonald says to combat this, the primacy of good education must be held dear. “Education is key. You stay in education for as long as appropriate. The message to schools, colleges and universities is to make sure the quality of the experience is as high as possible.”

At the end of it, he insists he can still get youngsters enthused by the future. “You get young people excited about what Scotland has looked like over the last 150 years, and then you get them excited about the next 50 years – life sciences, drug discovery, low-carbon energy, new manufacturing process, aerospace, space technologies, finance and business services, information infomatics. Scotland has decided world-class capability in all of these areas, and what we need to make sure is that in everything we are doing, it is the human capital that makes the difference.”

Not surprisingly, he bangs the drum for a dependable supply of university funding. “The quality of the academics we have in the system, and we are still attracting into the system, maintaining that will be a challenge if funding starts to become discontinuous, ie that we can’t bank on the same levels of funding. That will be a challenge for us to maintain.”

As for the big constitutional changes facing Scotland, he simply notes that, whatever happens in Scotland, the commitment to academic excellence must be kept sacred. “Regardless of the constitutional profile, the government commitment to keeping us healthy is a fundamental”.

In whatever shape it comes, the future is bright, he insists. We should not be too down on ourselves.

As for talk of inevitable gloom, he argues: “It should it be countered by well-informed optimism and enthusiasm. If we use the data and the case studies we have and realise the potential we have, it should give not just me, but Scotland, real expectation of growth.”

• Jim McDonald is principal of Strathclyde University