Luke Thurman: Brexit must not hamper Scottish innovation

From penicillin to Dolly the Sheep, Scotland has innovation and scientific discovery in its blood.

Political uncertainty mustn't dampen the pioneering spirit that created Dolly the cloned sheep, argues Luke Thurman. Picture: Julie Bull

Recently, a number of acclaimed collaborations between Scottish universities and their commercial partners have cemented this reputation; but as we find ourselves in highly uncertain times, it’s vital that our renowned pioneering spirit isn’t dampened by political insecurity.

Our small nation has built a science knowledge economy offering some of the best facilities and the most talented scientific brains in the world. This ongoing drive has been spearheaded by universities that have become increasingly savvy about how to work alongside a broad range of commercial, entrepreneurial and philanthropic organisations and these powerful collaborations have produced ground-breaking results.

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However, our focus now must be on how this successful model of partnering can be diversified and replicated to make the sector resilient to the fallout of Brexit.

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Whilst it’s easy to be pessimistic, it’s certainly worth noting the factors that have contributed to the partnership model’s success and therefore how we continue this positive trajectory. The university sector’s life-changing ideas are bigger than borders and institutions operate globally to leverage funding streams and build international relationships, with an increasing number of Scottish universities setting up overseas satellites to benefit from the excellent global relationships they have already seeded here.

However, fundamentally, science’s success doesn’t just rest on filling the funding gap. The world-class facilities that we have delivered in Scotland over the last ten years are only as good as the minds that work in them.

R&D has been a cornerstone of UK plc’s strategy for some time, with continued and patient investment creating a thriving scientific community. Making available these funds has had a significant knock-on effect on the built environment, with major developments supporting and enabling the sector.

In terms of European funding, research grants are generally given against a particular field of study where they can be used to carry out research anywhere there are facilities suitable. With current established (and excellent) cross-border relationships, this could as easily be in Scotland as anywhere else.

With ongoing political instability and uncertainty, it’s reassuring that the UK government is tabling a £2 billion package to protect the sector against the effects of Brexit. However, is funding enough? To answer this requires an understanding of what makes Scotland a great place for science. The funding structures in place are undoubtedly attractive but we also need to protect the delicate science ecosystem, which relies on attracting and retaining the best talent from around the world.

Increasingly entrepreneurial Scottish universities have become a magnet for top brains. Researchers from all over the world come to Scotland not just for funding but also the sense of community, knowing that they will be working alongside the best minds in the world with cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee providing a vibrant lifestyle as a backdrop.

Scotland’s strategy of maintaining its leading position will therefore need to incorporate a human angle – and not least a clear position on visas. Currently EU students are entitled, unlike English students, to free education at Scottish Universities. Whilst Brexit may mean that numbers of European students may fall (or may not if the Euro remains strong against the pound), with student numbers already dropping, it may mean that this opens the doors for students from further afield. Overall, non-Scottish student numbers may be down, but actual diversity may be up.

With the design of further education facilities as a specialism, this is a sector that we will continue to monitor with great interest. If Scotland can continue to attract the best in the world, whilst offering world-class facilities and forging strong commercial partnerships, the sector will weather the storm. After all, we did invent the waterproof Mackintosh.

• Luke Thurman is an associate at architecture firm Sheppard Robson in Glasgow