Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I think that I am correct in saying that this is Mr Lochhead’s first debate in his new role as Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, so let me welcome him to his place.

I am absolutely delighted that Mr Lochhead chose to start his tenure with a paean to my local university, Queen Margaret University, in East Lothian. He pointed out that for some 10 years the university has been led by its principal, Petra Wend, who is from Germany, and that the university’s international connections and collaborations spread right through its operations, which include ground-breaking research in food science and healthcare technology, to mention just a couple of areas. I am delighted by Mr Lochhead’s debut in his new role.

I welcome the opportunity to debate these issues, because they are important to Scotland. When it comes to debates on science, we can usually reach for a quote from Albert Einstein, and an apposite quote for today is this:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

I tend to think that if Einstein were to come back he would probably still be unsure about the structure of the universe, even with all the work that has gone on since he carried out his own work, but I fear that the whole sorry saga of Brexit would convince him that he had been right all along about human stupidity, because that process has been chaotic and catastrophic.

There is no doubt that Scotland’s higher education sector is world leading. Many institutions are in the top rankings for teaching quality, and we excel even further in the research that we produce. The minister has already pointed out that, with regard to the world university rankings, three Scottish universities are in the global top 200 for volume, income and reputation associated with research, and four for the influence of that research. We also have among the most productive research institutions. Indeed, nine of them are among the best in the whole world for their international outlook in relation to staff, students and research.

That was brought home to me most directly a few years ago when I visited the large hadron collider at CERN as part of a delegation from the cross-party group on science and technology. I was astonished at the number of the young scientists working on that international collaboration who were from Scottish universities, particularly Glasgow, Strathclyde and Edinburgh, or who were Scots studying at other universities but working at CERN. They were playing a significant leading role in that quite remarkable piece of cutting-edge technology.

That visit also brought home another link. We were lucky enough to be visiting the site of the experiment that demonstrated the existence of the Higgs boson, and perhaps the most complex and elaborate piece of scientific kit in the world was being used to prove something that Professor Higgs had postulated using no more than his fountain pen while sitting in the University of Edinburgh some 50 years before. Science is a global and international operation and, unfortunately, the current mess and uncertainty of Brexit can only weaken Scotland’s strong position in that respect.

Our research excellence is very much influenced by those European links, with £1 in every £10 of Scottish universities’ research income—or around £105 million every year—coming from the EU. Of course, that relates only to universities; it does not include the European research funding that goes elsewhere. With regard to horizon 2020, which, as has already been mentioned, is the biggest EU research and innovation programme that there has ever been, Scotland has again been in the lead, with 13 per cent of UK funding for that programme coming to Scottish institutions. It is important that we continue to benefit from future horizon programmes, hence the amendment that we have lodged.

Of course, it goes without saying that research is only as good as those who conduct it, and EU citizens make a vast contribution to our research sector, comprising more than 12 per cent of our university staff and 16 per cent of our postgraduate population. In fact, 60 per cent of the UK’s internationally co-authored research papers are put together with EU partners.

Our scientific excellence relates not only to life sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the STEM subjects—because Scotland and the wider UK are also leaders in social and humanities research. Significant amounts of research funding in those disciplines are also linked to EU collaboration. Indeed, 33 per cent of all European Research Council funding for social science research comes to the UK. For such strong bonds to continue, it is vital that our academic researchers can still travel to European countries with ease, and vice versa.

It is now two years since the referendum took place. I heard what Mr Mundell said, but the trouble is that our higher education, scientific and research communities still have no idea what the consequences of the result will be and no knowledge of the plans that they will have to work with in order to mitigate the impact.