Scottish science success story needs protection

The majority of Scottish science funding comes from outside Scotland. Picture: PA
The majority of Scottish science funding comes from outside Scotland. Picture: PA
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SCIENCE is vital to creating and growing successful economies. This is increasingly being recognised around the world. For example, the growing economic powerhouses of China and Brazil see clearly its value.

Both are targeting spending 2.5 per cent of their nation’s GDP on research by 2020.

Contrast that with the situation in the UK, where our spend of 0.68 per cent has been frozen since 2010 (in other words, has seen a decline when set against inflation).

However, set within that context, Scotland represents a shining, global success story. On a per capita basis, Scotland has consistently figured in the top three countries on Earth in terms of research output. The other two are Switzerland and Israel.

That success can be further illustrated at a UK level. Scotland has 8.3 per cent of the UK population, yet attracts around 15 per cent of all Research Councils funding and around 20 per cent of medical research funding. To put that further into context, Wales – with around 5 per cent of the UK population – attracts only 3.5 per cent of funding, less than the University of Edinburgh attracts on its own.

Other than London, Oxford and Cambridge, Scotland is very much dominant in UK research.

For a small nation, however, there are inherent challenges in maintaining this leading position. Research is a globally competitive business and becoming more so. Leading researchers are mobile and are drawn to those centres of excellence which offer the best working environments in terms of resources, equipment and highly skilled collaborators.

Much of Scotland’s research funding comes from sources outside Scotland. In addition to huge success in competition for support from the United Kingdom Research Councils, Scottish researchers consistently win very large grants from major research charities based outside Scotland, including the Wellcome Trust and the Wolfson Foundation.

The Scottish Government has recognised this outstanding performance through the Scottish Funding Council that invests in the research base infrastructure.

Clearly the constitutional debate presents challenges in terms of future support: how will Scotland’s research be funded if Scotland becomes independent? Within the research sector there is a multiplier effect: success breeds success but competition is relentless, and prolonged uncertainty could trigger a slide that would have serious implications for our talented researchers of the future. It is essential that a clear signal is given as to the way forward.

Rather like football, research performance is measured in league tables where success reflects funding, that in turn attracts the best players. The Premier League is a good example. Success brings trophies; failure may mean relegation.

To continue to succeed in research, it is vital that the brightest stars are in a position to win big grants.

How this will continue is a debate that needs to happen. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, in conjunction with the British Academy, has organised an event on this to take place in Aberdeen in October, as part of our series “Enlightening the Constitutional Debate”.

Our purpose in mounting all of these events is not a political one. The Royal Society of Edinburgh is an apolitical organisation. Our role is not to seek to influence the constitutional debate one way or another, but to bring expertise to bear to help the quality of that debate.

In terms of research funding, our event will look at how UK Research Councils and other major research funders might choose to allocate funding in the event of Scotland leaving the UK. Will they continue as before, or will politics force a radical change? Can they ignore the expertise available in Scotland? Will we require our own Research Councils? Have we the expertise to create these or will opportunity costs be an impediment? Do we risk seeing a drift of research leaders elsewhere?

These are all questions of genuine importance, and questions that require to be asked. The situation facing us is simple: to preserve and enhance a genuine world-class Scottish success story we must be well prepared. Finding the answers may prove rather more difficult, but find them we must.

• Sir John Arbuthnott is president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

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