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How would an independent Scotland fund its research?

NOW THAT we have fixed both the date and the question for the referendum on Scottish independence maybe we can expect our politicians to move beyond the emotional appeals that have so far characterised both the unionist and the nationalist campaigns. 

 

There is a critical need for some hard facts on how a separate Scottish nation would be organised so that we might make an informed choice.

 

One of the areas it would be useful to clear up is that of the research funding enjoyed by our Universities, a field in which Scotland is a world leader. Scottish Universities get £260m a year from the Scottish Funding Council to enable them to build the infrastructure to bid for research grants from the UK’s Research Councils, and with this money they do that bidding pretty well.

 

Scotland has about 8.4% of the UK’s population but currently there is no quota on the amount of research funding that can be allocated to Scottish Universities and they competitively win about 13.8% of the funding allocated throughout the UK. In other words, Scotland does about 50% better than its ‘fair share’. 

 

We do particularly well in the key research areas of Life Sciences and Computer Science, both of which have a huge influence on the development of new companies. In particular, Computer Science research funding in Scotland amounts to an impressive 21% of the UK’s total spend. 

 

Edinburgh University calls it’s computer science discipline ‘informatics’ and the informatics department at the University of Edinburgh is the same size as the next three largest UK schools combined, and significantly larger than any equivalent department anywhere in Europe or the United States. It also boasts the highest quality rating of any of the UK’s research centres.

 

One of the benefits of having such a large powerhouse in computer science research is the excellent range of companies that have set up or moved here to take advantage of the researchers and the graduates. Fast growing local companies such as Cloudsoft, SkyScanner, Craneware and Fanduel have been joined by the likes of Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft, each of which has established local software development groups. 

 

The allocation of research funding also benefits by being determined on a UK wide basis and if Scotland is to become an independent country we would have to decide whether to set up a completely separate funding mechanism or whether we could persuade the remaining parts of the UK to allow us to continue with the UK Research Councils. 

 

But even then, surely it is unlikely that Scotland would continue to get more than it’s ‘fair share’ without the balance of funds coming from the Scottish Government.

 

In addition there is funding from major English-based UK charities and trusts, such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research and the largest, the Wellcome Trust which spends some £640m a year. 

 

Wellcome currently funds projects outside the UK but when they do, as in the case of Irish projects, they expect the national government to match their funds 50/50. The Universities of Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh are currently huge recipients of Wellcome Trust funding.

 

As the independence referendum approaches we will need to seek the answers to the questions how will research be funded in an independent Scotland and how will we pay for the gap of several million pounds a year.

 

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