Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

As I understand it, visas for medical students and any other students are still controlled by the Home Office. We certainly want more foreign students to come here, as well as wanting our students to be able to study overseas.

As other members have said, it is clear that Scotland’s universities and their research are very much at the top end. For example, 77 per cent of Scotland’s university research is deemed to be “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”. Richard Lochhead and Iain Gray referred to figures, such as that nine of Scotland’s universities rank in the top 200. Scotland is second in the world for top universities per head of population—only marginally behind Switzerland.

Many examples of funding have been given, including the horizon 2020 case study on the European prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia. The University of Edinburgh is involved with public and private sector organisations across Europe. At UK level, too, there has been great benefit from EU research projects. From 2007 to 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion and got back €8.8 billion.

Comments from Scotland’s five medical schools are telling. Chances to lead international collaborations and clinical trials could be lost, so our world-class reputation could suffer. The schools say that it is not just about funding; there are concerns about connectivity, and about the ability to address major healthcare questions because of multipopulations being lost to them. Networks and collaborations that have taken years to formulate could be put in jeopardy, and there has already been a loss of leadership in research collaborations since the Brexit vote, as other members have mentioned.

We can thank the Royal Society of Edinburgh for its briefing for today’s debate. It argues along similar lines by talking about the complementarity of the UK and EU research funding systems having made the UK an excellent place to have a research career. The RSE emphasises that it is necessary for the UK to attract and retain the highest-quality staff from across the globe, as well as to continue to develop the domestic skills base. Tavish Scott cited RSE figures, such as 18 per cent of academic staff in Scotland being from the EU. The RSE also highlights that 31 per cent of such staff are non-UK citizens. That figure rises to 46 per cent for engineering and technology staff. In addition, 22 per cent of Scottish university students are international students.

The RSE makes the point that researchers and innovators want and need to work with the best in their fields. Therefore, even if the UK Government maintains funding for UK research, we would still lose full UK participation in EU programmes and lose the benefits of collaborative activity and the critical mass that the EU gives.

The RSE calls for full participation in horizon 2020 and horizon Europe, but warns that “associated status” for the UK may be the only option, and that that is

“very uncertain and unpredictable territory”.

It seeks a proportionate and flexible immigration policy that takes into account the needs and circumstances of devolved nations. As, I think, we have discussed here before, the RSE considers that students should be removed from the net migration target, and that the post-study work visa should be available for international students at universities.

I want to mention a specific sector: the space industry, particularly Glasgow’s satellite sector. Scotland’s space industry is reckoned to generate about £1 billion for the economy and supports 20,000 jobs. Glasgow produces more satellites than any city outside the USA. Scotland’s first satellite was launched only four years ago by Clyde Space Ltd. Alba Orbital and Spire Global also operate in the city. The Strathclyde space institute, which is based at the University of Strathclyde, has seven horizon 2020 projects that have a total value of €25 million.

The European Space Agency is distinct from the European Union, so the UK could leave the European Union and remain a member of the agency. However, my understanding is that it would not be eligible to participate in EU-funded programmes, which would be a problem.

Presiding Officer, if I have no leeway, I will finish here.