Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I am pleased to close today’s debate for the Scottish Conservatives. On a positive note, I join colleagues from all parties who have commended the excellent work of Scotland’s scientists and researchers and the massive contribution that science, innovation and research make to the Scottish economy.

That is especially so in Lothian, with its vibrant life sciences sector that underpins many local jobs. Earlier this year, I visited Edinburgh Genomics at the Roslin Institute and was able to see its clinical facility and gene sequencing labs. The work that is being undertaken by Professor Bruce Whitelaw and his team is truly inspiring and has massive potential for the future, which means that Scotland is today well placed to play a leading role in exploiting and showing the world the potential for genetic technologies to make significant impact on health provision.

We all need to get behind and champion the work of those pioneering scientists, and we have heard that today from some members. Rachael Hamilton, Jamie Greene and Alexander Stewart specifically took the opportunity of the debate to do that in their own areas. Any new political deal with the EU—and I am confident that a comprehensive deal will emerge in the next few weeks—might provide some short-term challenges to the funding systems, as we have outlined today, but the UK Government is committed to working with industry and academia to resolve issues and to support those sectors. Indeed, as Oliver Mundell outlined, early in the withdrawal process, the UK Government guaranteed funding for UK research projects otherwise supported by the EU until 2020. It is continuing to look at how it will support research after 2020.

A number of members have spoken specifically about horizon 2020. It is an important point that we on these benches have been working on. I wondered what the SNP’s white paper said on the subject when it was making the case for Scotland to leave the UK and the EU. There is a lovely picture of Dolly the sheep but not much detail. It is important for today’s debate to know that the white paper says:

“Our universities are already active players on the world stage extending their world-class teaching offering and forming partnerships and research collaborations across the globe. We are keen to further develop these collaborations ... as a sovereign nation state, to promote Scottish higher education overseas”.

I see nothing in that that the UK Government is not doing today.

Instead of spreading the doom and gloom that we have heard today, the SNP and the Scottish Government should be making a similar commitment to back these important sectors, look at what they can do to help them, and send out the message globally that Scotland and our United Kingdom are open for business and want to see more research, development and innovation take place here.

The fundamentals of our research and science sectors remain strong, not least because we have a high concentration of world-class universities such as the University of Edinburgh, Napier University and Heriot-Watt University providing highly skilled graduates, if Scots can get into their universities, as a number of members have outlined when talking about our medical degrees.

Scotland’s life sciences sector is a key part of our international reputation for scientific excellence and our pharmaceutical industry is an important element of that. I welcome the recently published Fraser of Allander institute report on the economic contribution of the pharmaceutical industry in Scotland. It showed that the industry supports a total of £2.5 billion of industrial output in Scotland and that exports of manufactured pharmaceutical products contribute £462 million to the Scottish economy and underpin 5,000 jobs across our country. Every 100 jobs in the wider pharmaceutical sector supports an additional 240 jobs elsewhere in the Scottish economy.

Concerns are being expressed, however, about falling levels of business spending on research and development in Scotland. SNP ministers have already fudged previous targets that they set themselves to grow the life sciences sector, so more needs to be done to encourage more investment, and we have ideas about how to achieve that.

SNP ministers could and should take action to ensure that data capturing capabilities do not slip back further than they already have. That means linking primary and secondary care data so that clinical trials can take place here in Scotland on a similar basis to trials such as GSK’s Salford lung study in England. That is a major issue for pharma companies across Scotland and I would like to see the minister, whom I welcome to his new position, take it seriously so that Scotland does not fall behind the rest of the UK in some of these areas.

Scotland’s research and scientific base is a success story, and I hope that today was about celebrating that. Scottish Conservatives value hugely the contribution of our scientists and researchers. Although we accept that Brexit might, in future, change some of the funding streams, we are confident that the UK Government and, if it steps up to the plate, the Scottish Government can work positively with industry and academia to put in place the new schemes that will grow the value of the sector and further boost our international reputation. We on these benches believe that the best days of Scotland’s researchers and scientists lie ahead of them and Scotland.

On the points that were made by Tavish Scott, it is odd that someone who represents Shetland fishing interests forgot to mention the fact that, last week, we learned of the support to Scotland’s fishing industry that is represented by the UK Government’s announcement of an extra £12 million to develop and support cutting-edge fishing technologies and safety measures, with £10 million to establish an innovation fund. UK Research and Innovation will establish that fund to ensure that the UK is a world leader in safe, sustainable and productive fishing. Scotland can and must be a world leader in fisheries research, and we on these benches are committed to ensuring that it is.

The debate has demonstrated the fact that, at some point, SNP ministers are going to have to get behind Scotland and the United Kingdom in what is the most difficult political negotiation in a generation. The more the SNP talks down Scotland’s science and innovation and research sectors, the greater the impact there will be on international companies that are today looking to invest in our country.

Great countries come together to turn challenges into opportunities, and all of us in the chamber should be working to realise the potential of Scotland’s research and scientific sectors in our Scottish economy.

I support the amendment in the name of my colleague Oliver Mundell.