SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH funding was one of the big winners in Chancellor Brown's spending statement this year. UK Government spend on science is to be raised from £3.9bn to a total of £5bn by 2008. The goal is to get the UK’s R&D spend up to 2.5 per cent of GDP over the next decade.
Now this is an area of particular strength in Scotland. With under 9 per cent of the UK’s population, Scotland competitively wins over 13 per cent of the UK’s scientific research funding. In some key areas, such as Life Sciences, Informatics and Optoelectronics Scotland has world-class centres with several University research departments highly rated. In the international league table of published research papers Scotland is right up at the top of the tree, way ahead of England and even of California.
The research groups are independently reviewed every five years or so and are rated on a points scale of one to five, where five points indicates a research centre of international competitiveness. Especially impressive world-class performance is designated an extra star — a 5* classification. Scotland has several of these, such as Biological Science at Dundee and Informatics at Edinburgh.
There is no doubt that such centres of expertise help to create the climate that leads to the creation of innovative world-class companies, such as Cyclacel in Dundee and Wolfson in Edinburgh, which provide such exemplars of the Scottish Executive’s ‘Smart Successful Scotland’ strategy.
But, to be frank, there are far too few such examples of successful business creation from Scotland’s innovation base.
The business start-up and spin-off rates in Scotland stay stubbornly low, way behind similar-sized economies such as the West Midlands of England (which have twice as many start ups) or Massachusetts (which beats Scotland by a factor of four). So why is this? Well, one clue might lie elsewhere in the league tables of research quality. The tables for the disciplines of Economics and of Business and Management, for example, where Scotland’s performance is relatively poor. None of Scotland’s research centres scored more than 4 in research competency (compared with 13 centres in England with a 5 or 5*). In Business and Management, again no Scottish group scored better than a 4 (compared with 15 English centres at 5 or 5*).
All this indicates that Scotland remains second rate in management skills. It is no secret that Sir George Mathewson, having totally failed to persuade Edinburgh University Management School to scale up to the task, is now planning to install an offshoot of the Harvard Business School at the RBS’s new headquarters at Gogarburn. It is still unknown whether the facilities will be made available beyond the bank’s needs.
There is no doubt that many more scientific and technological businesses could be created based on the impressive level of innovation within Scotland’s universities, but we should stop pretending that management skills can just be ‘picked up’ by otherwise skilled scientists and engineers. We need a much stronger base of people equipped with the key management skills to enable such businesses to be created and to grow successfully.
Scotland’s universities have a key role to play in providing these skills. They need to step up to the task.