To be or not to be Independent, that is the Question!

(July 17th, 2014) In September, Scotland will decide about its future. However, a possible independence from the UK will not only lead to changes in the country’s economy but also in science and research. For the better or the worse, no-one can know for sure.

On 18th September 2014, Scotland will vote on whether it wants to become an independent country or remain part of the UK in a referendum. Scotland prides itself on a very strong scientific community and the impact independence could have in this sector – particularly regarding funding - has been a much debated issue for years.

Every scientist in Scotland can vouch for the strength of its scientific community and the success of the present infrastructure, collaboration channels and funding systems available across the UK. As a testament to the quality of research, Scottish science wins more funding than expected on the basis of size (over 13% of the UK funding against around 8% of the UK population). Every scientist is eager to maintain this competitive edge but the best way to achieve it depends on who you ask.

A recent white paper published by the Scottish Government states that an independent Scotland will seek to remain in the “common research area” and will negotiate a formula to continue funding to Scottish research institutes based on their performance. “It's up for discussion but the Scottish government has committed to fund research, so I don’t think there’s any issue. The government has made it clear that their preferred option is the continuation of the shared system, with the Scottish government putting in its share of the funding,” declares Bryan MacGregor, vice-principal and Head of the College of Physical Sciences at Aberdeen University. “I think even with a Scottish Research Council, there would be a convergence on policies, processes and possibly themes, which makes a continuation of the current system likely. At very least, some form of formal co-operation is likely to come out of any discussions.”

This view is also supported by Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Research Council UK (RCUK). According to the Herald Scotland, Boyle believes, "Scotland benefits from being part of RCUK and (…) we both benefit from having a strong UK research system.”

Boyle’s support may increase the likelihood of successful negotiations but according to ‘Scotland Analysis: Science and Research’, by the UK government, there is “no precedent for cross-border collaboration” and “the government of an independent Scottish state could find it a challenge to design and implement a mechanism for assessing excellence, due to the size of the Scottish research base, a smaller number of peer reviewers and fewer institutions to benchmark performance against”.

Despite MacGregor disputing the unprecedented claim – suggesting many examples available, including links with Ireland and the European Research Council - some researchers believe the proposed system leaves many questions unanswered. “I think the biggest worry is the uncertainty because we don’t know whether there will or there won't be a consistent funding situation,” points out Richard Codgell, who holds the Hooker Chair of Botany at Glasgow University. “The idea that the Scottish government can keep the same system going seems unrealistic and they're not providing any other discussion if that doesn’t work.”

The No camp defends: any system could be very difficult to implement as England would, in effect, be subsidising research in Scotland. “One can express the views that a common research area would solve the problem but as a junior partner in that area with probably less to offer than the larger partner, how can one be sure the interest would be there?”, asks Adrian Bird, Professor of Genetics at Edinburgh University. “If, as now, Scotland gets a larger share of research income than its size or its tax contribution justifies, then how would that go down with those in another country essentially funding research abroad?”

Should funding fail, “What will happen is that people will start moving to other places, going to other countries, where they can get access to the funding they need for their work”, adds Dario Alessi, based at the MRC Protein Phosphorylation Unit at the University of Dundee. “The other thing - potentially more serious - is that young researchers, when they're thinking of launching their lab, are not going to be attracted to come and work in Scotland.”

However, some feel the uncertainty of funding doesn’t come from an independent Scotland but from maintaining the status quo, as 25 billion pound budget cuts are announced by Westminster. These cuts would inevitably come to Scotland’s Universities and research labs through the Barnett Formula. “England’s research funding has been capped - unlike Scotland - and the Research Council’s budgets are being cut with many scientists expressing their concerns about the way funding is going for research. A No vote is a much bigger risk in terms of funding available,” defends MacGregor.

There are only 92 days left to the referendum, and the discussion is far from over. What will Scotland decide? Yes or No?

Alex Reis

Photo: Drummond

Last Changes: 08.11.2014