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

Of course—Professor Macleod would be an excellent candidate. Indeed, there are many candidates from Scotland who have given us an enormously successful track record in science and innovation down the centuries and who have made a difference to ordinary people’s lives, not just in this country but across the world.

Scots-born Nobel laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart—to name another eminent scientist—said:

“What’s most important is to be able to have at least 15 different nationalities in a large research group—that’s the way we do science, we do it at a global level.”

Scotland is truly a global leader in science. We are an outward-looking country with valuable international collaborations that support high-quality research. The Scottish Government alone provides £500 million annually for science and research at Scotland’s universities and at our research institutes and public bodies, including NHS Scotland.

In 2016, Scotland’s higher education research and development spend as a percentage of gross domestic product was ranked top in all parts of the UK and fifth highest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. That is a phenomenal track record, which has led to results on research excellence. Three Scottish universities are in the

Times Higher Education global top 200 for research volume, income and reputation, and four are in the global top 200 for research influence as measured by publication citations.

All of that underpins Scotland’s economy and Scottish jobs. The latest figures show that, in 2016, private investment in research in Scotland surpassed the £1 billion mark for the first time. Of new UK spin-outs, 23 per cent are from Scottish universities. Again, that is more than in any other part of the UK.

Just last month, Nova Innovation was awarded the 2018 Enterprise Europe Network award for its work on renewable energy as part of a pan-European project. It is therefore ironic that our full participation in the European programme that supported that project, horizon 2020, is now being threatened because of Brexit. Scotland has thus far secured almost €558 million from the horizon 2020 programme alone.

Our universities are well connected globally. Scottish universities have a higher percentage of EU students than those in other parts of the UK and more than a quarter of all full-time university research staff are from EU countries. We punch way above our weight. It is therefore no wonder that the 2019

Times Higher Education world university rankings show that nine of Scotland’s universities are in the global top 200 for international outlook.

However, I do not want just to highlight our truly outstanding international research community in Scotland and its global connections; I want us to safeguard all of that for the future as well. Professor Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow recently gave the clearest of warnings about the impact of Brexit on science and research in this country, saying:

“If I can’t run a world-leading team of researchers here I’m not going to let the skills, knowledge and momentum we’ve built die because of a hard Brexit. Many of us will be forced to move our research abroad.”

I am shocked and dismayed, as I am sure many others are, at the casual attitude that the UK Government has been showing towards the threat that Brexit poses to Scotland’s global reputation for world-leading research; to the freedom of movement of both Scottish and EU researchers; and to Scotland’s ability to continue to compete and participate in key European research programmes. Years of building trust through co-operation and partnership are now being sacrificed thanks to infighting in the Conservative Party at Westminster.

The impact of that is starting to be felt. According to data in the science journal

Nature

, UK participation as a lead co-ordinator in EU multilateral projects through horizon 2020 has reduced significantly since 2016. There are many other impacts, too. The third sector invests significant amounts of money in Scottish research. One of the key research funding charities, the Wellcome Trust, has raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on its future potential investments. Its director, Jeremy Farrar, stated:

“We have invested in the UK for more than 80 years. It has provided an environment in which science and innovation can thrive, but if the conditions and the culture here are damaged, that will affect our support. It is not unconditional.”

If such damage can be done to our reputation and status even before Brexit, it is easy to see why so many are anxious about the situation after 29 March next year. The Scottish Government’s paper, “Scotland’s Place in Europe: Science and Research”, which was published earlier this week, quotes the recent letter of 29 Nobel prize winners to the Prime Minister. It says:

“science needs to flourish and that requires the flow of people and ideas across borders”.

The UK Government’s hostile rhetoric and attitude are not helping to make our EU friends in this country feel welcome or at home. Polling by the trade union Prospect showed that nearly 70 per cent of EU scientists in the UK are thinking of leaving after Brexit.

In Scotland, a country that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, we should be resolutely focused on attracting the best minds in Europe to work and study here to help us to build a successful and prosperous nation. Instead, thanks to the actions of others, we face the prospect of a Brexit brain drain. We need to stand together and prevent that from happening.

Like others, I have been actively encouraging the EU nationals whom I meet to continue to study and work at universities and other research organisations in Scotland. Amid the chaos of Brexit, it is important that we send out a message that Scotland is open for business and that we welcome with open arms people from EU countries to our universities and research institutions.