Speech

Scotland’s science and research community is a successful and valued part of the UK

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Universities, Science and Cities Minister sets outs how Scotland’s science and research community is a successful and valued part of the UK.

See the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) website for a detailed transcript of the question and answer session that followed this speech.

I am delighted to be here at this meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh being held at the University of Glasgow and in the company of such a wide array of talent across the breadth of disciplines.

It is well known that Scotland has made a disproportionately large contribution to UK science, and the RSE has a long and distinguished history in promoting excellence in Scottish research, innovation, arts and social sciences.

Your fellows are drawn from across the UK and indeed the world, reminding us of how far your influence stretches. And of course the latest of your fellows whose distinction has been recognised around the world is our most recent UK Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Higgs.

This is my first speech in Scotland since being appointed Universities, Science and Cities Minister. I don’t need to tell you that it is an important brief, and I will look to build on the brilliant work of David Willetts. And I’m delighted that he’s here today (24 July 2014), demonstrating that continuity. With the referendum only 2 months away this is a crucial time to reflect upon what the different outcomes would mean for research and development in Scotland.

We want the best for Scotland, and I have 3 main observations for Scotland’s science and research community.

Let me deal with each of these points in turn.

Scotland’s excellent science and research base

Scottish science and innovation makes a vital contribution to the UK’s world-class research base, bringing benefits for business and society as a whole.

The UK’s Higher Education Institutions are world class, with more universities near the top of international rankings than any country other than the USA. Here in Scotland you have 5 of the world’s top 200 universities.

The UK’s research base is excellent – second in the world only to the USA for number of citations. We are the most productive country for research in the G8 in citations and publications per pound. Scotland plays its full part, producing around 12% of the UK’s research papers.

The UK’s Higher Education Institutions also have an enviable reputation for collaborating with business on innovative projects. The World Economic Forum’s evaluation ranks the UK among the top 5 nations in the world for university-industry collaboration in R&D. And only last week the Global Innovation Index 2014 showed that since 2009 to 2010 the UK has climbed from 14th to second in the world.

In addition R&D helps attract investment. As part of the UK, Scotland is currently very successful in attracting foreign investors. I am aware that that RSE has a Business Innovation Forum led by your Vice President for Business, Ian Ritchie and this addressing the key issue of financing innovation.

And finally, collaborations between organisations in Scotland and the rest of the UK have resulted in ideas with the capacity to change our lives. For instance, ultrasonic tweezers developed with EPSRC funding by a team of researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Dundee, Glasgow and Southampton could improve cartilage implants and reduce the need for replacement knee operations.

Meanwhile scientists at the world-leading Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh are working to gain crucial new insights into conditions such as schizophrenia and cystic fibrosis. The institute is a hugely effective partnership between the Medical Research Council, the university and Cancer Research UK.

These exciting partnerships are a symbol of what can be achieved without geographical boundaries.

These partnerships will build on the UK’s fine tradition in medical research. I can see notable figures from the medical research field in the audience. Sir John Arbuthnott, your current President, is well known for his contribution to microbiology, as well for his leadership of the University of Strathclyde.

Scotland should be proud of its world-class reputation for science and research. But we should also recognise that it is enhanced through access to UK-wide funding, infrastructure and other networks.

UK’s integrated research framework

Scotland benefits from an established funding structure which results in a high proportion of UK spending going to Scottish institutions. In 2012 to 2013 Scottish Higher Education Institutions secured £257 million of UK Research Council grants, which is 13.1% of the UK total. This is significantly more than Scotland’s 8% of GDP and 8.4% of the UK population. Including all Research Council funding Scotland secured £307 million, 10.7% of the UK total, in 2012 to 2013.

As part of the UK, Scotland also benefits from other UK Government research funding. For example the Ministry of Defence invests over £400 million per year in its Science and Technology Programme.

Projects of all scales are supported by the UK research framework. For example the AHRC-funded Knowledge Exchange Hubs are connecting with creative SMEs and cultural organisations. In Scotland the Design in Action hub has connected with over 250 SMEs.

Of course these are difficult economic times, and the pot will never be limitless. I am well aware that there are projects you would have liked to have seen funded that have missed out. And let me assure you that I will be your champion, continuing to stress the importance of funding the very best science.

The good news is that despite the challenging economic climate, overall UK science funding is increasing. On top of this the Chancellor has announced the largest ever sustained long-term investment in science capital of £1.1 billion a year, rising with inflation until 2020 to 2021.

This will bring our overall investment in science to nearly £5.9 billion in 2015 to 2016 – an increase in overall spend compared to recent years.

It is a mark of the government’s commitment to UK science and research that there is certainty in capital investment to the end of the decade, maintaining stability for stakeholders where long term funding commitments are crucial.

As part of the UK, researchers in Scotland also benefit from access to world-leading infrastructure. This includes domestic infrastructure spread across the UK, and UK membership of international facilities such as the European Centre for Nuclear Research. International collaboration is also crucial to the outstanding research on gravitational waves here at Glasgow being carried out by Professor Jim Hough and his colleagues.

Scotland also benefits from the wider UK research and innovation framework. For example in 2013 to 2014 the Technology Strategy Board invested nearly £45 million in Scotland. Its development of an elite network of Catapult Centres will help business across the UK exploit new and emerging technologies. But there are also many other UK-wide institutions – like the British Standards Institution, the Intellectual Property Office and the Science and Innovation Network – that play a key role encouraging research and innovation to drive economic growth.

The UK Space Agency is another important example. This month it launched its first satellite – Ukube-1- which I am delighted to say was home-built in Scotland by Clydespace. This is the sort of game-changing small satellite we want to launch from the UK in the future. And it shows what can be achieved with real collaboration between UK agencies, Scottish universities and the Scottish private sector.

The future for UK space is even more exciting. Commercial space and space tourism are just over the horizon. The UK has a firm ambition to establish a spaceport in the UK by 2018. Earlier this month we announced 8 coastal airfields which have been identified as potentially feasible locations for a UK spaceport. I am delighted to say that 6 of these are located in Scotland.

We have a fine example of the UK’s existing strengths in space here in the audience. I am pleased to see Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who will be following on from Sir John as President. Dame Jocelyn’s discovery of pulsars when she was still only a PhD student in radio-astronomy at the University of Cambridge was one of the most important scientific achievements of the twentieth Century. And she has campaigned hard to encourage other young women to take a similar path into science– a mission I certainly intend to lend my full support.

As part of the UK, Scottish HEIs benefit from the Research Excellence Framework. This is internationally recognised for assessing research excellence, and can be used as a quality benchmark for securing international collaborations and funding from businesses.

But the third important point is that if Scotland left the UK, there is a real risk that the current framework for research could not continue.

In his address to this society Mike Russell pointed out that research knows no boundaries and is predicated on excellence and not borders.

This fact is not in question – Mike Russell talked of a ‘common research area’, and claimed it would be in the interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. But as all of you here know far better than me, it is important that we examine the evidence and the facts to substantiate a hypothesis. In their open letter earlier this month, Sir Paul Nurse, Lord Stern and Sir John Tooke said, and I quote:

…if Scotland is separated from the rest of the UK, the strong links and collaborations which exist in the current open system would be put at risk, with any new machinery put in place to attempt to restore them likely to be expensive and bureaucratic.

We have seen why the integrated UK research framework is good for Scotland. In April 2014, the Scottish Government published its paper Scotland’s Future Higher Education Research in an Independent Scotland. The striking message was how well Scotland is doing as part of the UK. The Scottish Government would essentially try and negotiate with the continuing UK to maintain the current arrangements.

The UK Government has made clear that national governments fund national research. There is no international precedent for sharing or replicating a system on the scale of the current UK funding streams across international borders.

There are practical implications of things like different intellectual property regimes that pull systems in different directions. Indeed, the Scottish Government’s White Paper envisages a separate system from the UK’s, based on a different model of patent protection. The effects of such regulatory differences, and objections to pooling sovereignty and competing interests from institutions in the continuing UK, should not be underestimated.

A vote for independence is a vote to leave the UK’s institutions, such as the Research Councils. This is not just the UK Government’s position – it is also backed up by international precedents and the views of legal experts.

Some academics in favour of independence seek to imply that UK and Republic of Ireland collaborations demonstrate things would not change in the event of independence. Let us look closely at the nature of those collaborations.

Firstly, they are small scale. Each country meets the cost of their own researchers.

Secondly, researchers from the Republic of Ireland have far more limited access to UK scientific infrastructure than researchers from Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Indeed, for the majority of the Research Councils, UK/Ireland engagement is conducted through the EU’s research programmes. In 2012 to 2013 funding for Scottish Higher Education Institutions from Research Councils was more than treble the levels received from EU funding, at £231 million and £69 million respectively.

It is important that everyone examines the facts of this debate, and what it means for science and research. As we have set out in our analysis paper, there is a serious danger that creating an international border would prevent the close collaboration we see now.

Conclusion

I believe that as part of the UK science and research base, Scotland currently has the ‘best of both worlds’. In addition to benefiting from the UK’s research and innovation infrastructure, Scotland benefits from tailored support provided by the Scottish Government. Indeed the Scottish Government frequently co-invests in Scottish projects being funded by the UK Research Councils or Technology Strategy Board.

The Chancellor announced just 2 days ago the governments plans for the new Glasgow City Deal. An agreement I am proud to have had a major role in securing as Cities Minister. Subject to successful business cases the government has committed to support the establishment of a new Stratified Medicine Imaging Centre of Excellence with an investment of £16 milllion to be matched by £48 million from local sources. RSE Vice President and Head of College Medicine and Life Sciences here at Glasgow University, Professor Anna Dominiczak has played a key role.

In the recent ‘Research Fortnight’ poll of researchers and university staff, 75% of respondents feared the loss of access to UK research funding in the event of independence. But the poll highlighted many people are reluctant to speak up in the debate.

I am grateful to those who have explained how medical and scientific research across the UK would suffer if Scotland votes for independence, including by Sir David Carter and other eminent Scottish medical experts among others. I hope many more of you will champion the integrated and thriving research base in Scotland and the rest of the UK. It is clear this heavily integrated research framework would be at real risk in the event of Scottish independence. You can help inform voters how the interests of Scottish scientists and researchers – and resulting wider economic and societal benefits – are best served through Scotland remaining an integral part of the UK.