Professor Dame Anne Glover: Scotland’s reputation for world-class research may be destroyed by a no-deal Brexit

Professor Dame Anne Glover, RSE President
Professor Dame Anne Glover, RSE President
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I was talking to a language ­scientist from the Netherlands the other day and asked her why she had chosen to work in Scotland. She said that Scotland’s ­scientific reputation and ­quality of life had made this an extremely attractive place to continue her research and bring up her family.

It was affirmation yet again of what those of us working in science in ­Scotland already know – that our reputation for scientific excellence is held worldwide and we offer a ­comfortable, welcoming place to live.

Coupled with the usual pride I feel when I have a conversation like this, it left me feeling extremely downbeat.

With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, I wonder what this means for ­Scotland’s scientific endeavours, and our ability to attract people of her ­calibre to our universities in the future? As a nation, our high ­quality, research intensive environment and our ability to engage in ­seamless collaboration with EU partners has afforded us the enviable ­position of being a major recipient of EU research funding.

Scottish organisations have secured €558 million from the Horizon 2020 programme so far, funding that’s designed to secure Europe’s global competitiveness in research and innovation; €90 million from Erasmus+, the EU programme for education, training, youth and sport; and another €58 million of Territorial Cooperation funding, which enables businesses, universities, local and regional authorities and the voluntary sectors in different countries to work together on shared issues.

Our success in bidding for these funds has been predicated on our centuries-old reputation as a smart nation, constantly innovating and delivering scientific solutions to address some of the world’s most pressing needs and problems.

Think saline drips, hypodermic syringes, television, penicillin, radiation therapy, betablockers, mammal cloning, criminal fingerprinting, keyhole surgery, renewable energy technologies, the HPV vaccine, laser and nanoparticle testing for ­meningitis – you should be thinking of and thanking a scientist who had worked, or is still working, in Scotland for ­making it possible and that’s just a fraction of the difference our scientific research and innovation has made to the world.

That is why I am so keen to ensure Scotland continues to have a flourishing research base and why I am so concerned about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. We risk undermining the achievements of years of painstaking, groundbreaking research built on collaboration with EU partners, as well as losing some of our most brilliant minds who dare to imagine the impossible and then do precisely that. In doing so, it’s not just Scotland that will suffer, the consequences will be felt globally.

A no-deal Brexit brings uncertainty which almost certainly will have a detrimental effect on the UK’s research endeavour. There is a lack of clarity and detail on if and how the UK will be able to continue to participate in EU research and exchange programmes post-Brexit, for which, up until now, we have been active and valued participants. Securing direct and full participation in Horizon 2020 and its successor framework programme, Horizon Europe needs to be a priority.

Notwithstanding UK Government reassurances that funding for UK research will not suffer as a result of the withdrawal from the EU, this cannot compensate for the potential loss of the added value gained from full UK participation in EU programmes.

In the event of a no deal Brexit, it will be important that the UK Government provides sufficient funding to UK Research and Innovation to ­fully underwrite the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020. If we want to ­continue to be a leader in research, with the benefits that brings for the society and the economy, this must not be at the expense of existing budgets.

Agreement must also be reached between the UK Government and the EU on ensuring that students and staff in Scotland and across the UK can continue to be able to participate fully in Erasmus+ and that a flexible immigration system operates to allow us to support our research and innovation sectors.

UK immigration policy needs to take account of Scotland’s distinctive demographics and its skills needs. Setting arbitrary salary thresholds for immigrant workers coming to the UK must be avoided and any threshold must take account of regional differences in salaries. A sufficiently long lead-in period will be required to enable institutions, staff and students to plan for future changes to UK immigration policy.

Scotland is a smart scientific nation. We should be celebrating and championing it at ­every opportunity. And this means doing everything in our power to reduce the risk of a no-deal Brexit.

Professor Dame Anne Glover, RSE president.