Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Yesterday, I visited Queen Margaret University, where I was given a tour by the wonderful principal, Petra Wend. She has been at the helm there for nine years and she recently announced that she will stand down next summer, so I pay tribute to her for the enormous contribution that she has made and continues to make to higher education in Scotland.

Petra Wend is German. During my tour, I was struck by Queen Margaret University’s international character. In a laboratory, I met two academics who were there to show me around. The senior research fellow was from the Netherlands and the PhD student was Greek. Later, I had a presentation from the head of student services, who is Bulgarian. At Queen Margaret, 15 per cent of the students and about 9 per cent of the staff are European Union nationals.

Across Scotland’s universities, colleges and research institutions, students and staff from the EU make an enormous contribution to Scotland and our global reputation for excellence. Many institutions benefit greatly from EU membership—for example, 19 per cent of students at the University of Aberdeen alone are EU nationals.

However, as a result of Brexit, I am hearing similar messages everywhere I go on my various visits. I hear about universities hiring immigration lawyers, about staff in tears and about staff and students feeling uncertain, insecure and less welcome. I hear about talented and valued staff contemplating leaving Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, I have heard everywhere about the short-term and long-term threat that Brexit poses to Scotland’s research base, to funding, to our international standing and influence and to our reputation for science, research and innovation, and educational excellence, which one principal rightly described to me as “beyond world class”. All that damage is self-inflicted. It is no wonder that the principal of the University of Glasgow, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, said that a hard Brexit would

“represent the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory”.

Scotland’s story, and especially that of our universities, has been shaped by our close relationship with Europe. Today, our research institutions increasingly work together to increase their impact, but we have always recognised that co-operation within Scotland or the UK alone is never enough for real success. World-leading success comes from reaching out beyond our borders across the globe—and, of course, across Europe—to add value to research endeavours in Scotland.

Scotland builds on a great history that goes back centuries to our early links to Europe. Our first universities were set up in the 15th century, when St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen were all founded through papal bulls, which gave them the seal of approval to award degrees. Until then, Scottish students had studied in continental Europe because of the wars of independence with England.

Europe influenced Scotland, and Scotland influenced Europe and the world. The Scottish enlightenment figures David Hume, Adam Smith and James Hutton changed our way of thinking about the world and our economy. The first industrial revolution would have been unthinkable without James Watt’s steam engine, which brought science and invention together with industry and engineering.

Scientists and researchers in Scotland continue to shape society; they are leading on aspects of the fourth industrial revolution, which is focused on linking our cyber and physical worlds. That is not the only area of impact. Our excellent research base, which comprises universities, research institutes and public research bodies as well as third and private sector activity, is having a positive impact on many aspects of Scottish society. To give just a few examples, that ranges from improved health and social care—that is in the news today—to better access to digital communications, cleaner energy and transport, and improved safety and security.

We all know that science and research are extremely important activities in Scotland. The total investment in research and development in Scotland is £2.3 billion a year. More and more expert voices have been speaking out about the damage that Brexit is causing to that investment, because international collaboration is at the heart of the success of science and research in this country.