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I welcome the opportunity to present the motion to Parliament.
Since starting in my ministerial role, I have been consistently impressed by the incredible work that is carried out across all our Scottish institutions, with our United Kingdom and international partners, in growing and developing science and research in Scotland.
From the enlightenment through the range of industrial revolutions—we are now in the age of the fourth industrial revolution—the people of Scotland have shaped the modern world through science, invention and innovation. Our pioneers continue to echo through the ages and to inspire new generations, as we can see from events that are taking place this year, including events to commemorate the bicentenary of James Watt’s death. Other commemorations have occurred—for example, Mary Somerville, who is known as the queen of 19th century science, became the first female scientist to be featured on a British banknote, following a public vote on the issue.
The new knowledge that is created in Scotland not only improves the daily lives of our people, but places our country at the forefront in addressing many challenges that are of global importance.
It would, of course, be an understatement to say that we live in very interesting times. Never before have we been bombarded daily with half-truths and even naked lies by the news and the media. In such confusing times, it is perhaps more important than ever that we all come together to recognise the key role that Scottish science and research can play in uncovering and promoting new facts—I emphasise the word “facts”—and knowledge.
However, we must not forget the importance of ethics in that process. There is a key role for us—as politicians and members of the Scottish Parliament—and for all those who are in public roles, to ensure that we respect the facts. Science and research in this country would not be excellent if it were not for the fact that they are also ethical. That idea very much fits with the Scottish Government’s commitment to protect, respect and realise internationally recognised human rights, and to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights across the world. Research ethics not only promote the expansion of knowledge, but support values including fairness and mutual respect, which are key components for collaboration.
Scotland’s science and research has intrinsic value as a cultural good and as a symbol of human achievement. Therefore, we must continue to listen to and respect the experts who enable us to use science and research outputs to the benefit of society. We should bear that in mind, given that some politicians have, in the past, said that we should ignore the experts or not give them the respect that they deserve.
There are many benefits from research and science in this country, including economic benefits. Scottish universities continue to perform well with spin-off activity. The latest figures show that the number of active university spin-offs grew by 46 per cent between 2014 and 2017. This morning, I spoke to Professor Peter Mathieson, who is principal of the University of Edinburgh. He told me that the university has, in the past 12 months alone, created 65 new companies, and its track record illustrates that 80 per cent of its spin-offs still exist after 15 years.
As well as what our universities are doing, our research institutes are impacting positively, particularly on the rural economy. Analysis has estimated that the wider economic benefits of their research contributed a total of £151.8 million in gross value added to the Scottish economy in 2016 alone, and supported nearly 1,500 jobs.
As many members will know, I have spoken often in the chamber, as have others, about Scotland’s culture of science, discovery and invention. It is worth remembering that Scotland continues to be a global leader in science and research, so I will take this opportunity to highlight a few of our successes.
“A Metrics-Based Assessment of Scotland’s Science Landscape 2007-2016”, which was published this year by the Scottish Science Advisory Council, underlines the truly global reach and quality of Scottish research at our universities, in our research institutes and businesses and within the public sector. The report provides clear evidence of just how much above our weight we punch. Scotland is number 1 in the UK in terms of the number of publications per researcher. We are also number 1 in the UK in terms of citations per researcher, and we are number 1 for that measure among European Union members and the other countries that were studied. Those are our current strengths as a science nation, and we should shout them from the rooftops and tell the world.
However, if we are to secure that position into the future, we cannot be complacent: we must work hard to ensure that Scotland continues to provide people with the right skills, and that it remains a great place to study and work in science and research.
As part of that agenda, it is worth noting that we continue to make good progress on delivering our five-year science, technology, engineering and mathematics strategy, which is our key policy for supporting STEM education and training in Scotland. Actions include trialling of the Scottish young STEM leader mentoring programme and grant funding of STEM professional learning projects. Colleges are developing regional STEM hubs to strengthen collaboration between partners including universities, science centres and employers. Our science and society funding is making science events and activities at science centres and science festivals accessible for about 1 million people in Scotland.
All that activity is focused on ensuring that we maintain and strengthen our talent pipeline in science, from supporting learning and teaching at all stages to inspiring people of all ages through public science initiatives. The Education and Skills Committee has just published its report on STEM, and we look forward to debating that in the chamber, I hope, at some point in the future.
We can be truly proud of the contribution that Scotland-based researchers are making on the European stage and in the wider world. The SSAC report that I mentioned earlier underlines the fact that international collaboration is integral to our continued excellence in science and research. Being a key leader and partner in international collaborations will continue to be a major part of our drive to promote Scotland as a world-leading science and research nation.
I will not go off on a tangent and speak about Brexit in any great detail. However, if Brexit were to go ahead—I hope that it will not—it is important that we maintain the strength of Scottish science and research and that we maintain collaboration with our European partners.
From all my conversations with many leading researchers and their representatives in Scotland, the best deal for science and research in Scotland would be to have no Brexit and to remain within the European Union. However, if we are to leave but continue with the full benefits of horizon 2020, Erasmus and the European collaboration that takes place in science and research, we will need a much better deal than that which is currently on the table.
In support of collaboration, I recently convened Scotland’s first-ever science and research summit, in June. That brought together the wider science sector, including universities, colleges, research institutes, science engagement and Government science. The summit focused on key issues in respect of collaborating for excellence.
Since then, I have invited our chief scientific adviser, the renowned Professor Sheila Rowan, to chair a working group to develop the ideas that will help us to achieve our “Scotland science nation” ambitions. I look forward to seeing the working group’s recommendations.
I want more people in Scotland to take pride in the fact that science and research excellence is not just part of our history, but is part of our present and future success. Science is an intrinsic part of our culture and our daily lives. It reflects that Scotland is an outward-looking open and progressive nation, and that, as our campaign says, “Scotland is now.” We should celebrate all that.
We need to get that message out to international audiences, to encourage people of all countries to visit, study, work and invest in Scotland. My vision is of Scotland being recognised across the globe as a science and research nation. I strongly believe that many members, if not all, will agree that Scotland has a clear and proven track record in science and research.
This is not just about celebrating the figures of the Scottish enlightenment—although we should continue to do that, and do it more often—and those who were prominent in previous industrial revolutions and who did so much to invent the modern world, although we should, of course, do that too. It is about recognising today’s world leaders in research and science in Scotland and recognising Scotland’s pioneering role in the fourth industrial revolution.
We must also recognise that the Scottish Government’s progressive and forward-looking policies, together with Scotland’s research excellence, are an ideal combination to support the United Nations sustainable development goals and to help to make the world a better place. We should inspire people from around the world about the fantastic careers that are open to them in science and research in Scotland, and say that there is something special about Scotland that makes it one of the best places in the world for science, invention, innovation and research. Our research excellence is as Scottish as our landscapes, our tartan and our whisky.
Scotland’s proven research excellence across a broad range of disciplines allows us to capitalise flexibly on emerging opportunities, and to respond positively to a wide range of national and global challenges. I will give a small flavour of those strengths spanning physical, biological and clinical sciences.
We have a strong footprint in the physical sciences across artificial intelligence—which was debated in the chamber a week or two ago—data, engineering, robotics, photonics and sensors, including their applications in energy and transport.
In biological and clinical sciences, we have expertise in molecular biology, drug discovery, infectious diseases, genetics, animal and plant sciences, Alzheimer’s, precision medicine and many other areas.
Another key Scottish strength is in environmental sciences, including aquaculture, food security and blue biotechnology.
In that context, I highlight that, just last week, the University of Strathclyde received the Queen’s anniversary prize for higher and further education, which is one of the highest accolades in UK higher education. The award recognised Scotland’s research in energy innovation. I am sure that we all say “Well done” to everyone who has been involved in that fantastic achievement. A total of 22 prizes were announced this month in the 13th round of the Queen’s anniversary prizes, and three of them came to Scottish institutions—the University of Strathclyde, the University of Stirling and Heriot-Watt University. Those prizes are more examples of Scotland’s excellence in science and research.
However, we must not stand still. In order to maintain our excellence in science and research, we must support and nurture the next generation of researchers and knowledge-exchange practitioners, and we must ensure that our excellence in academia supports our excellence in business and public services. We are doing that, for instance, through our continuing investment in the innovation centre programme. Through transformational collaboration between businesses, universities, colleges, institutes, the public sector and others, the innovation centres aim to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across key economic sectors, in order to create more jobs and to grow the economy.
Through the Scottish Funding Council and the enterprise agencies, we will continue to invest in the innovation centres, with up to £75 million over the next five years. The recent announcement of funding for the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre to the tune of £10 million is just one example of how we are helping to grow innovation between business and research.
I have seen at first hand some of the ground-breaking innovation, which has been absolutely fascinating. One project that I recently observed during my visit to the Digital Health and Care Institute in September was the Scottish capsule programme—ScotCap. It is a leading innovation that uses camera-pill technology and a managed service to aid clinicians in gastroenterology services. That innovative technology means that patients receive a less invasive form of endoscopy in community hubs and in their own homes, which also minimises the impact on their daily lives. The technology involves the patient taking a pill that has a camera inside it, which videos their insides, which is much less invasive than other methods. That is an example of the amazing things that are happening with technology and innovation in Scotland at the moment.
Members will hear me talk about my ambition for Scotland to stand out as a science and research nation. It is innovative projects such as ScotCap that are supporting a revolution in health services in Scotland and beyond.
It is not only in health that such innovation has the potential to transform lives. An amazing partnership between the Scottish company Sunamp Ltd and the school of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh has successfully developed heat-battery technology that can store energy from any source as heat and release it on demand to provide space heating and hot water, thereby reducing use of fossil-fuel energy sources, and reducing carbon emissions. It also saves households a lot of money, with proven savings of up to 75 per cent on utility bills. There are a lot of amazing and exciting things happening in Scotland.
Looking ahead, I point out that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to promote science in this country through the United Nations 26th conference of the parties summit, which will be held in Glasgow a year or so from now. That annual global forum on climate change will attract hundreds of world leaders and thousands of delegates and other visitors from around the world. It will give us an amazing and unprecedented opportunity to showcase the best of Scottish science and research, and the developments that are taking place here, through collaboration between industry and academia, to help to tackle climate change. We will absolutely use that platform to do that.
Scotland excels in science and research, so we should be celebrated as a science nation. Researchers in Scotland are at the forefront of multidisciplinary international research collaborations that tackle national and global challenges and drive forward the frontiers of knowledge.
I hope that members can rally today to promote Scotland as one of the world’s leading science nations.
That the Parliament celebrates Scotland’s role as a science nation with a deserved global reputation, which builds on a famous heritage, a range of former achievements and continues to grow today; acknowledges the excellence of Scotland’s science and research base as reflected in the Science Landscape report,
A Metrics Based Assessment of Scotland’s Science Landscape
, which was published earlier in 2019; recognises the ongoing collaboration between academia, business, public sector and third sector that lies at the core of Scotland’s excellence; endorses the important role that Scottish science and research plays in addressing the economic, societal and environmental challenges that the country faces, including dealing with the climate change emergency, reducing inequalities and improving public health; acknowledges that science and research therefore underpins Scotland’s commitment to the sustainable development goals, and looks forward to the conclusions of the Science and Research Working Group led by the Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland on how to further promote Scotland’s strengths as a science nation.
It is a pleasure to open this afternoon’s debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and to join others from across the chamber and beyond in celebrating Scotland’s role as a science nation.
There is not much in the minister’s speech with which to disagree: it is a topic that we can all gather together and support. As the Government motion rightly states, we can be very proud of the deserved global reputation that we have in the field, from the tremendous university and research institutions that are leading the way in life sciences, biotech and informatics—as well as just about everything else—to the world-leading companies and industries that are based here and call Scotland their home; from the North Sea to the renewables sector; and from drug and medicine manufacturers to the aerospace industry. There can be no doubt that we have a lot to celebrate in the here and now.
Those achievements find their foundation in our proud history of scientific endeavour. For centuries, Scotland has been a beacon for enlightened scientific thought—it was home to Alexander Graham Bell, Mary Somerville, Alexander Fleming and James Watt among many others, which are names that will probably pop up many times in the debate.
In addition, many of the most important scientific advances have their roots in Scottish research, such as the magnetic resonance imaging scanner, the development of keyhole surgery and the theory around the existence of the Higgs boson particle.
I do not want to dwell overly on the historical, but the lesson that we can all take from the strength of what has already been achieved and what we enjoy today, is that we must continue to invest in and value science and recognise its importance to our cultural identity, to the economy and to job creation. It is not possible to have future success, and to see things develop over time, without continuing to do that.
By ensuring that we take the right steps now, and by listening to the conclusions that come from the science and research working group, led by the chief scientific adviser for Scotland, we can ensure the success of future generations through the legacy of the achievements and work of today.
The cabinet secretary talked about the importance of listening to experts. My plea is for all parties and all Governments to carefully and gently reflect on his advice. The Scottish Government can sometimes be as guilty as other Governments in the United Kingdom of cherry picking which experts it wants to listen to, and when. If we are genuinely going to put experts at the forefront of our science policy, we need to be willing to listen to them, even when they have uncomfortable truths to share with us.
For me, this centres on education and on the need to properly promote science in our schools, particularly in the early years and in primary schools. I have seen great work—there is no denying the great work that is being done in many of our schools. I have visited schools in my constituency that do phenomenal things and give our young people great opportunities. However, the picture is not consistent across the country.
One of the many inspiring contributions in that area has come from Sir James Hough, who, despite his position as an international leader in the search for gravitational waves and his academic commitments, has spent a great deal of time and taken a great deal of interest in encouraging primary school teachers to embrace science in the classroom.
I was delighted to join other members of the Education and Skills Committee, of which I was a member at the time, at this year’s primary science education conference. I was impressed by Sir James and many of the other speakers, exhibitors, classroom practitioners and teachers, as well as the young people who were there. They all appeared to grasp the importance of engaging with people early and recognising that science does not need to be complicated or particularly elaborate to be interesting and useful. There is a lot of work that we can do to ensure that our schools are well equipped to deliver meaningful science, and to teach the next generation the principles and values that we have heard about during the debate.
I intend to remain positive in what will be a predominantly positive debate. However, it would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to highlight some of the challenges to the Scottish Government, the first of which is the importance of subject choice as people move into secondary school. The research and the anecdotal evidence, as well as the opinions of many experts, suggest that science subjects are feeling the squeeze, at least in some schools, particularly when it comes to qualifications.
As the Government acknowledges, there are also challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers in STEM subjects, particularly in rural and remote communities, such as my Dumfriesshire constituency.
More recently, concerns have been raised about multi-level teaching, where two or more distinct courses are taught simultaneously in one classroom. The learned societies group on STEM education said:
“Science teachers have expressed concern that multi-course teaching does not allow them to fully support the needs and aspirations of pupils”.
That should worry us all. These issues are well-documented and have been the subject of considerable recent and on-going parliamentary interest. If we are unable to get to the bottom of such systemic issues in our education system, the sector and our country will suffer and fail to maximise its potential.
It is also difficult to see how we will meet the Scottish Government’s key performance indicator to reduce the proportion of STEM employers in Scotland that are experiencing skills shortages if the Government fails to close the gap in the education system.
As well as what is happening in our schools, what happens in our universities, colleges and research institutions also remains important.
As I said, there is much to be proud of. Five Scottish universities are in the top 200 institutions in the 2016-17 Times Higher Education world university rankings. Our academic and research institutions punch well above their weight: figures show that 77 per cent of university research in Scotland is deemed to be world leading or internationally excellent. We can be very proud of that. Indeed, figures show that university research in Scotland has a greater impact on our economy than research in the UK as a whole has on the UK economy. That shows how key what is developed at our universities is.
It is all about how we capitalise on that and help to commercialise some of that research. In an unpredictable world, that is key to helping to make sure that those institutions are sustainable in future.
There are too many outstanding projects, individuals and collaborations for me to be able to list them all in today’s debate. I am sure that many members will give examples. As the MSP for Dumfriesshire, I could not have spoken in this debate without highlighting the work of Scotland’s Rural College, in my constituency, at its dairy research centre, which is due to be significantly enhanced as part of the Borderlands inclusive growth deal. The work will build on one of the longest-running longitudinal experiments in the world, by applying learning from the research into the Langhill herd in the significant partnerships that the college has established around the world, including in Malawi. It is very special that research on dairy cows in Dumfriesshire is benefiting farmers in a nation that has such close links to Scotland and this Parliament.
Such research, like the work that is done at the Moredun Research Institute and Roslin institute, makes a significant contribution to rural Scotland and our rural economy. It shows the value and practical advantage of retaining and developing world-leading expertise here in Scotland.
It also shows the breadth of our research expertise. When people hear the word “science”, many of them think about traditional areas such as chemistry, biology and physics, but a great deal of work is being done in industry that has significant commercial potential and can change people’s day-to-day lives.
That takes me on to the final piece of the puzzle: industry. My colleagues will expand on that in their speeches this afternoon.
I say again that we are fortunate to have many world-leading and enterprising research-based companies here in Scotland. It is a real positive that such companies want to be based here and there is no doubt that they recognise the strength of our science education and the opportunity to work in partnership with our great universities and research institutions. That is a vital draw for them.
If we can get the package around education right, and if we can continue to deliver world-leading opportunities, I see no reason why our success as a science nation will not continue for decades and centuries to come.
The Scottish Government is sometimes a little too ready to claim world-leading status for Scotland in whatever area of policy endeavour—or life—about which it might be talking at a given moment, but to claim that Scotland is a science nation seems reasonable enough.
Certainly, we can point to the historical track record. The minister mentioned James Watt and Mary Somerville, Mr Mundell mentioned other Scottish scientists, and there are plenty more: James Clerk Maxwell, Kelvin, Joseph Black, James Black, William Ramsay, Alexander Fleming, Hutton, Napier, Logie Baird—the list goes on and on.
Of course, that leads to a question: how stands our claim to be a science nation today? There are few countries in the modern developed and developing world that would not claim to be—or to be trying to be—a science nation.
After all, it is clear that the future belongs to the countries that can build prosperity on high-tech industries that are highly skilled and innovative, with global relevance and reach, and which are, therefore, underpinned by science.
Therefore, the Scottish Science Advisory Council’s assessment of Scotland’s science landscape is a critically important document. It shows that Scotland’s researchers continue to be among the most productive in the world. As the minister pointed out, the number of publications per researcher is consistently higher here than in the rest of the UK and, indeed, in all other comparator nations. The assessment also shows that our research continues to be of the highest quality, with the highest average number of citations per researcher. It shows, too, that our research output has increased by 15 per cent since 2007.
However, the assessment also tells us that that increase is slower than in the United Kingdom generally, and slower than the global average, and that our total gross expenditure on research and development as a share of gross domestic product continues to be low—lower than in the UK as a whole and lower than in all comparator nations, with the exception of Ireland. Therefore, it is absolutely clear that we cannot rest on our laurels. We will not maintain our position as a science nation without making the conscious effort to do so.
Although the minister’s science and research working group is a welcome initiative for pursuing such an objective, we face significant challenges. The most imminent and urgent of those is, of course, Brexit, as the minister mentioned. We have debated that threat to our science base separately on a number of occasions. Much of our research base is underpinned by EU funding and the contribution of EU citizens who have chosen to base themselves here, and much of our research takes place within research partnerships that are embedded in European research frameworks. All of those are, at best, uncertain now. I agree with the minister that the most effective way of resolving that lies in the election on 12 December. A Labour Government would be willing to put the Brexit question back to the people so that we can stop Brexit.
Like Mr Mundell, I think that we can all support the motion. I understand that the minister is seeking consensus, but it would be remiss of me not to mention, at least gently, that other and greater constitutional threat to our research base: another independence referendum. We know that Scottish research punches way above its weight in the UK, with 14 per cent of UK-wide research funding won here as a result of the excellence of our university and research sector. However, we cannot assume that we would continue to have access to all of that pool of funding were we to leave the UK, and to jeopardise it would be foolish in the extreme. Being thrown back more on our own resources, whether by Brexit or by independence, would mean redoubling our efforts to ensure the highest-quality training and opportunities for our next generation of scientists.
The truth is that, in some ways, we are already going backwards. That 14 per cent share of UK research funding is a figure from 2019-20; only six years ago, the figure was 15.6 per cent share. Universities Scotland tells us that that drop, small though it sounds, amounts to a loss of tens of millions of pounds of research and the jobs that go with it. There are signs that our competitive edge is slipping when it comes to research. The reason is not hard to find. That competitive edge to win funding, whether at European or UK level, depends on our core research capacity. The main research grant for Scotland’s universities—the research excellence grant—has been cut by 12 per cent in real terms since 2014-15.
In the same period, England’s universities have seen their public funding for research and innovation increase. That creates consequential funding that could have been passed on to universities in Scotland but has not been. Indeed, there are around £18 million of consequentials from university research this year that the Scottish Government has already received but has not passed on.
It is, of course, the Government’s prerogative to spend that money somewhere else, but if we are serious about the desire for Scotland to be a science nation, we have to be prepared to put our money where our mouth is. Universities Scotland has asked for a 2 per cent real-terms increase in research excellence funding in the budget, and it needs a positive response.
Of course, the other investment that we have to be sure that we are making in the future of science in Scotland is in our schools, which Oliver Mundell mentioned. We must ensure that the next generation of scientists are given the knowledge, skills and opportunity to secure our scientific future. We should be worried by the evidence in the Education and Skills Committee’s report and elsewhere that the number of subjects that children can choose in the senior phase of secondary school is reducing, and that STEM subjects are among those that are being squeezed. That is being exacerbated by teacher shortages—particularly in computer science—which run the risk of becoming systemic, meaning that computer science, for example, could be squeezed out of many schools altogether. With data science and artificial intelligence, which the minister mentioned, becoming some of the fundamental disciplines underpinning a great deal of research work and science, we cannot allow that to happen.
We will support the Government’s motion, but we need to hear more specifics about how serious ministers and the Government are about supporting Scotland as a science nation into the future.
I thank the cabinet secretary for bringing the debate to the chamber.
I take the opportunity to reinforce the point that it is not only universities and large organisations based in cities that are driving research and innovation, important though that world-leading work is. In Shetland, more than 55,000 fish and shellfish were measured by scientists from the NAFC Marine Centre in 2018, and more than 1,700 students enrolled on 150 full-time or part-time courses, including students from Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal and Canada studying an online course in fish welfare. Also in 2018, John McCulloch from Unst became the first person in Britain to complete the groundbreaking professional development programme in aquaculture management, which was developed by the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway. Further, Kirsty and Aimee Budge are doing important work to share best practice on their farm in Bigton, which is Shetland’s monitor farm.
The fishing, aquaculture and agriculture industries are working hard to maintain sustainable world-class products and overcome environmental challenges. Yesterday, pupils at Sound primary school told me how important the issue of environmental challenges is to them.
Shetland has a history of being at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs. The chamber might not be familiar with the work of Sir William Watson Cheyne, who grew up in Fetlar. During the late 19th century, he was a surgeon and assistant to Sir Joseph Lister, who developed antiseptic surgery, as well as being a researcher at the forefront of medical bacteriology in his own right. Now, in the 21st century, Shetland is well placed to capitalise on the burgeoning small satellite industry, and I look forward to supporting progress towards delivering a launch facility in Unst.
University of Edinburgh PhD student Matjaz Vidmar was recently in Lerwick for a talk on Scottish spaceports. He made the point that Scotland could be in an ideal location to capitalise on space innovation. Scotland already has the talent to design, build, launch and extract data from satellites; we just need the infrastructure to do it.
Part of that will involve securing high-speed broadband connections. The Education and Skills Committee’s report into STEM in the early years, which was published last week, recommended that the Government consider the extent to which STEM learning in schools is being hampered by poor internet connections. That cannot be allowed to continue if we are to meet our science nation ambitions.
It is not just at school where children need good internet connections—they need to be able to access learning materials online at home if they are to develop a passion in STEM subjects. Now that a preferred bidder has been announced for the reaching 100 per cent programme, work must proceed quickly.
The Education and Skills Committee’s report also looked at gender issues in early years education. The committee heard that children as young as six already associate girls with reading and boys with maths. The latest statistics show that only 17.3 per cent of first-degree entrants on engineering and technology courses at Scottish higher education institutions are female; the figure for computer science was similarly low, at 18.5 per cent.
Equally worryingly, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s “Tapping all our Talents” report found that only 30 per cent of female STEM graduates in the UK are working in STEM industries. A science nation cannot have young women being discouraged from pursuing a career in science as a result of a lack of progress in opening up male-dominated industries.
It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that teachers have the time and resources that they need to deliver engaging STEM lessons. That is not happening on a wide scale today, even though some very good work is being done, as other members have acknowledged. Last year, an Educational Institute of Scotland survey found that 90 per cent of teachers did not have enough time to dedicate to professional learning.
All that being said, Brexit looms over Scotland’s science sector and presents real risks to funding and to collaboration with our European Union partners. There are no reassurances about Scotland’s status in the successor scheme to horizon 2020. As of July 2018, Scottish organisations had secured €533 million-worth of funding from horizon 2020.
However, the issue is not just about funding. Last week, I was saddened to learn of Professor Fabio Quondamatteo’s resignation from his post as chair in anatomy at the University of Glasgow. He wrote on Twitter that that was
“A difficult and painful decision mainly driven by the uncertainties in planning a long term life for our Italian family in the UK.”
The UK will undeniably be poorer if talented academics such as Professor Quondamatteo no longer choose to study and make their lives here because they do not feel welcome. The human cost of Brexit is utterly shameful. Scotland did not achieve any of its past scientific success in isolation, nor will we do so in future.
The Liberal Democrats will support the motion.
Earlier this week, I listened to “Woman’s Hour” on Radio 4, on which there was an interesting article about women and the Royal Society. Despite being very aware of the societal barriers to women in science, I was surprised to learn that the first female fellow was admitted to the Royal Society only in 1945. I thank colleagues in the chamber who have mentioned the great wealth of talent that there has been in the past in Scotland. I felt that it would be nice to mention some of the women involved in that.
In 2013, I spoke in a debate in the Parliament about an exhibition in the National Library of Scotland on women scientists from Scotland. A specific criterion for the women who featured in that exhibition was that their research was still being taught in universities and was still valid today. I will run through a few of them. Elizabeth Blackwell was a botanist. Elizabeth Fulhame was a chemist. Williamina Fleming was an astronomer who discovered the Horsehead nebula. Maria Gordon was a geologist who did much of her work in Italy. Muriel Robertson was a zoologist and one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Society. Victoria Drummond was a marine engineer. Marion Ross was a physicist who became the first director of the University of Edinburgh’s fluid dynamics unit. It is right that we mention those women because, although they do not come to mind as easily as Maxwell and Hutton, their contribution to science and to Scotland as a science nation has been invaluable.
From an exhibition that took place during women’s history month, I move to November, which is pancreatic cancer awareness month, which is why I am sporting a bit of purple today. Pancreatic cancer awareness month is about raising awareness of pancreatic cancer. We know that there will be 10,000 people diagnosed with that disease this year and that 9,300 of them will die of the disease within a very short period.
I am delighted that the pan can van is outside the Parliament today. Its team has been highlighting the world-leading work that is being done by the Precision-Panc team, which is led from the Wolfson Wohl cancer research centre at the University of Glasgow. That groundbreaking research seeks to understand the human genome better and to find the right drug for the right patient at the right time. The work is completely patient focused, and it represents a different way of approaching cancer treatment. The pancreatic clinical trials are individually focused and genome based in order to develop targeted treatments for genetically complex pancreatic cancers. That means developing new treatments, optimising current treatments, matching them to the patient and making them even more effective. The aim is to make precision medicine a reality for people with pancreatic cancer. It is a groundbreaking example of what is happening in modern Scotland and it defines us as a science nation.
I was very grateful to be taken round the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research by Jen Morton and to meet the people taking part in the Pancreatic Cancer UK future leaders academy. Those PhD and MSc students are studying pancreatic cancer and investigating the preclinical trials of some of the drugs that are being developed at the institute. It was remarkable to see those young people in that setting. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, and many of them are from other European nations.
That brings me to a report by the Scottish Science Advisory Council, which the minister mentioned. He highlighted some of the things that Scotland is excelling in, and I want to talk about two things that were highlighted in that report. First, more than 89 per cent of Scottish researchers have published outside Scotland, and 57 per cent of them are transitory; and secondly, Scotland is a global collaborator when it comes to science research, working with the United States of America, Germany, France, Italy and Austria. That shows that, as an outward-looking science nation that collaborates, we must be very wary of the dangers of Brexit.
I am very disappointed that the UK Government has yet to respond to the concerns raised by the Education and Skills Committee, particularly on the matter of short stays and the temporary leave to stay, which has been extended for three years should there be a no-deal Brexit. That is not suitable for Scottish universities. Indeed, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli described it as “crass”. He said:
“We can’t have policies which are made on the hoof, which this one appears to be.”
I thank Beatrice Wishart for highlighting Professor Quondamatteo’s Twitter feed, in which he describes his feelings about being a researcher in Scotland and the fact that he no longer feels that this is a place where he can raise his family as a direct result of the damage that Brexit is already doing to our universities. That must be addressed, and we must be able to look to a future where Scotland can continue to collaborate and where our students are still able to go on exchanges across Europe. The best way for that to happen is simply for Brexit not to happen.
We have some time in hand, so I will not be brutal if I members wish to take an extra minute to make their points. I should have said that to you, Ms Adamson—but I did not, so there we are.
Scots have invented almost everything worth inventing—at least, I am sure we might like to believe that. All joking aside, and many true things are said in jest—you name it: the television, the telephone, penicillin, the steam engine and the bicycle—refinements of existing technologies and new discoveries by Scots have enabled immeasurable positive change across the world.
In this modern age, Scotland’s scientific success has become important in finding solutions to our contemporary problems, perhaps most prominently on climate change and the emerging technologies of the space race. Importantly, Scottish research continues to punch above its weight, as it has often done. In that regard, we have already heard that 77 per cent of university research in Scotland has been deemed by the research excellence framework to be “world leading” or “internationally excellent”.
Scotland is indeed well placed to take full advantage of new areas of technology and research and to carve out a highly skilled manufacturing and research niche. We can consider the newly proposed aerospace innovation centre, which will be a 10,000 square-foot multipurpose hub for Scotland’s aerospace sector, funded through the UK Government’s Ayrshire growth fund, that will allow several constituent parts of our country’s nascent aerospace sector to come together and innovate. We hope that the involvement of a number of our national universities will see well honed-routes for our graduates into those sectors in the years to come.
The Conservative-led UK Government has made great strides through investment across Scotland. The UK Space Agency has been at the forefront of encouraging innovation, awarding funding to Scots companies such as Clyde Space and recognising the £3.8 billion that the commercial space sector could be worth to the British economy over the next decade. The UK’s share of the global space industry is projected to grow to 10 per cent in the next decade. A central tenet of that pro-enterprise agenda is, importantly, to remain outward looking and pro-European. We will continue to welcome the best talent, allowing close co-operation with our neighbours and the world.
The Scottish Conservatives wish, of course, to remain vigilant in defence of a genuinely pro-investment and pro-enterprise agenda in Scotland. We need to avoid anticompetitive policies and underfunded infrastructure and to take full advantage of the £521 million real-terms increase in the block grant and the generous increases that recur, too, as a result of Barnett consequentials. In 2016-17, the Scottish universities gained 13.5 per cent of their funding via EU allocations, but that was far outweighed by the £629.7 million of research income that was gained from UK sources—a sum six times larger than the EU one. Whatever happens in the near future, EU and UK co-operation on such funding will doubtless continue. The current programme is guaranteed by the negotiated financial settlement; and involvement with future horizon programmes has been left open for discussion.
Adam Smith laid the foundations for a free market system for this country through which scientific innovation flourished and working people gained control over their own lives and exercised their prerogative in ways previously unthinkable. Arguably, scientific ideas and innovations born here in Scotland have been responsible for lifting millions out of poverty and enabling them to grasp new opportunities that industries have presented. Those things are hard won, but I am afraid to say that, as long as Scotland possesses a Government that is allergic to investing properly in infrastructure and has a counterproductive attitude to investment, we are in danger of losing them. We can consider the Scottish National Party’s mishandling of tax and fiscal policy in Scotland, breaking a manifesto promise not to raise the basic rate of income tax, which now hits everyone earning above £26,000—a salary that can hardly be described as a high income. It is economic common sense that levying uncompetitive tax rates here will only drive business south of the border. The Scottish Lifesciences Association warned last year that tax rises would only damage recruitment of highly skilled people in Scotland.
Will the member at least acknowledge that the biggest threat to researchers and academic staff basing themselves in Scotland is not the tax regime but the threat of Brexit, which is cited time and again? Our university staff and students and the wider research and innovation community all voted against Brexit because they want to remain in Europe, as that is the best means to attract people to come here to live and work.
I thank the minister for highlighting the fact that Brexit will bring huge opportunities not only for the United Kingdom, but for Scotland in particular. That is, of course, something that we should all welcome as we leave the European Union, but remain part of Europe—as we will do.
There is, always was and, we hope, always will be immense talent in Scotland. However, that talent must be nurtured and encouraged, not overtaxed and driven away.
As we have heard, Scotland has long been regarded as a world leader in the field of sciences, and is able to boast a number of discoveries that have shaped the modern world. In fact, Dundee is known as the city of discovery in honour of its scientific achievements, and, of course, its famous ship, the royal research ship Discovery. It was launched in March 1901 and designed for Antarctic research, and its first mission was the expedition that carried Scott and Shackleton on their first successful visit to the Antarctic, which was known as the Discovery expedition. That expedition was one of the first research trips that was concerned with the environment at a time when little was understood about the nature of our environment or the future importance of its protection. It was a truly groundbreaking expedition that led to the discovery of more than 500 types of marine animal, many hundreds of miles of unknown coast, and towering mountain ranges and glaciers, as well as providing invaluable magnetic measurements, auroral observations and seismic recordings. The body of work was massive, and when the research had been analysed and the Royal Geographical Society came to publish the results, 10 large, weighty volumes were filled. It represented a major contribution to the understanding of the Antarctic continent; a feat made all the more remarkable considering the extreme conditions endured by the heroic scientists of RRS Discovery.
However, that was not the end of Discovery’s endeavours. In 1925, RRS Discovery set sail for the southern seas once again. Its mission was to research whale stocks and the migration pattern of whales, as well as to provide a scientific basis for regulation of the whaling industry. As on Discovery’s last trip south, important scientific breakthroughs were made that heralded the beginnings of conservational thinking.
Scotland is now a world leader in the fight to protect the environment through our advancements of the scientific understanding of climate change and the application of new scientific methods to combat threats to our climate. However, a recent report by the Centre for Constitutional Change stated:
“Brexit poses significant risks for the climate and energy ambitions of the devolved nations. These include the loss of European Structural and Investment Funds targeted at climate and low carbon energy policies, from which the devolved territories have benefited ... The removal of the EU policy framework, which has incentivised the low carbon ambitions of the devolved governments directly and indirectly, may also result in lost opportunities fostered by the EU’s new legislative framework in climate and energy policy.”
I will be interested to hear the minister’s view on that.
Dundee has been a recipient of a large number of research grants from the EU, which it has used to great effect. It punches well above its weight, with the James Hutton Institute and in life sciences in particular. The latest win is the £100 million Innovative Medicines Initiative European lead factory programme, which will speed up the development of new drugs and was won by BioCity Scotland, the University of Dundee and the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance, with the support of Dutch and English partners.
The University of Dundee has been rated among the world’s best universities for the impact of its scientific research in the 2019 CWTS Leiden rankings, which place Dundee at 15th in the world for the highest proportion of highly cited publications. According to the ranking, Dundee is just behind Oxford and Cambridge—which are 11th and 12th—in that important marker of research quality, and it is the highest-placed university in Scotland.
That is not the only way in which the university leads, or has led, the way. At the age of 80, Mary Baxter founded University College, the forerunner to the University of Dundee, and her work has encouraged women who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to study to take up new careers in science and medicine. Even though that was more than a century ago, much still has to be done to ensure that education is equal. I welcome the Scottish Government’s focus on STEM education to develop and grow Scotland’s expertise in the interrelated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
I would be interested to hear from the minister what further steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure equal female representation in the take-up of STEM education, and how it is ensuring that women are given every encouragement and opportunity to continue studies in those important fields.
In conclusion, we have a rich scientific history—particularly in the city of Dundee—of which we should be proud, but which needs to be nurtured and supported to ensure that it continues to lead the world.
The sentiments of the motion cannot be argued with—a bit like motherhood and apple pie. However, there are challenges in the sector and little acknowledgement of those in either the motion or the cabinet secretary’s opening speech.
Let me mention a couple of them. We know that women are underrepresented in the sector, so where is the plan to get more women into STEM? Where is the industrial strategy to ensure that the benefits of our research and development continue into industry and that Scotland reaps the benefit?
Looking at the statistics, we see that only 15 per cent of engineering graduates are female. For computer studies, the figure is 19 per cent, and for maths, it is 38 per cent. Despite those low numbers, the Royal Society of Edinburgh found that 70 per cent of women who graduated with STEM qualifications are not working in the industry. That is simply not good enough.
Recently, when we debated artificial intelligence, the point was made that things designed for men could be unsafe for women. Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women” points out those dangers. It is about the design of things that we live and work with every day. Frightening statistics include the fact that women are 50 per cent more likely to be hurt in a car crash than men, because the car is designed around a male body rather than a female one. The recognised symptoms of a heart attack are of a male heart attack. The symptoms are different in women, which means that they are more likely to die if they have one. A world designed by men is simply not safe for women.
It is also interesting that robotics often use female voices to take commands, emphasising gender stereotypes rather than creating a fairer world.
Underrepresentation also increases the gender pay gap. Those STEM-based jobs are better paid and, again, women are being left behind. The gender pay gap is not about women being paid less for doing the same job as a man. That is illegal. It is about gendered pay, where jobs predominantly done by women are paid less than those done by men.
After studying on a bursary for three years, a nurse starts on a salary of around £22,500. A police officer is paid a salary of around £26,000 from the moment that they start training. By the time that they accrue three years’ on-the-job training under their belt, they earn around £10,000 more than a nurse who has studied more intensively for the same period. They both save lives while putting their own on the line. The only reason for that difference is that police officers are predominantly male and nurses predominantly female. That is simply unfair. It is a historical gender pay gap. We should not start this unfairness all over again with new career structures.
I cannot speak about women in science and technology without mentioning the women into science and engineering—WISE—campaign for gender equality in science, technology and engineering. The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin institute has championed that cause and is working to achieve a better gender balance in STEM.
However, it cannot do it alone. In order to increase the numbers that go to university and then into the workplace, we need to ensure that girls at school are choosing science. We must also look at why the women who make it to university are not working in the field.
We know that like appoints like, so in order to increase the number of women in those careers, we need to encourage positive measures to ensure that those who are doing the appointing are women.
The other issue in this debate that I want to touch on—in common with other such debates—is where is the industrial strategy? This is yet another debate about one aspect of our economy, held in a silo of its own. This is a Government that refuses to step back and see the wider picture—a Government without an industrial strategy, which hopes that, somewhere along the line, all the different aspects of our economy will miraculously come together. That will not happen without the Government acting, by bringing forward an industrial strategy. Its absence means that we are not maximising the impact of the actions that are being taken.
Resources are short and we need to ensure that every aspect of development and industry is pulling in the same direction. That starts with education. We educate children for the world that we live in, and to equip them for life. Therefore, we need to know what we need them to be, and what they need to know to be that.
The other issue that I will quickly touch on is research funding, which Iain Gray spoke about in his speech. The main research grant for Scotland’s universities, the research excellence grant, has been cut by 12 per cent in real terms since 2014-15, and Barnett consequentials have not been passed on. We take our success in research and development for granted at our peril. We used to lead the world in education and now we are lagging way behind, and we cannot afford to do the same in research and development. STEM subjects are growing in importance and we need to ensure that they are promoted throughout schools, academia and the workforce. To do that, we need a plan to make it happen, to ensure that nobody is left behind.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
The Environmental Research Institute or ERI is one of the country’s leading scientific institutions and authorities on environmental issues. Based in Thurso in North Highland College, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, the ERI provides educational opportunities from undergraduate to doctoral level and its mission is
“to address contemporary environmental issues and advance understanding of the sustainable use of the Earth’s natural resources.”
Research at the institute currently focuses on environmental contamination and ecological health; water and climate; and renewable energy and the environment. The ERI has built up a reputation in the Highlands and in the wider world, attracting students from the Americas, Asia, Australia and throughout Europe. Its partnership working has seen it access funding for projects with international significance and its unique setting, right beside the largest expanse of blanket bog in the world—the Forsinard flows—makes it an ideal centre for research on the carbon capture and storage capabilities of peatlands.
One of the current projects is to monitor and assess how much carbon is stored and released at various points around the bog. Peatland scientist Roxane Andersen uses a special piece of equipment called an eddy flux covariance tower, which is a complicated name for something that does a relatively simple job. It samples air from the bog in 30-second intervals to track the amounts of methane and carbon that are stored and released. It is a hardy piece of kit that gathers data day and night, unless it is knocked off course by wind—of course, Caithness and Sutherland are very windy counties—or, I am told, unless its tubes are clogged with midges.
I spoke recently in the chamber about the negative effect of previous tax incentives to plant trees on the flows. When the trees were planted, the ground was dried as the peat was drained, releasing untold amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Scientists have been undertaking restoration of the bog for 16 years now, which includes felling the trees and rewetting the ground by filling in furrows. They have had remarkable results that have further enhanced their understanding of that special environment. All that contributes to achieving the aim in the Scottish Government’s climate change plan to restore 250,000 hectares of peatland by 2030.
Earlier this year, the peatlands fell victim to a particularly large wildfire that burned away 6,500 hectares of blanket bog. The area was made up of peatland in a range of conditions—drained, drained and afforested, undergoing restoration and near natural. Dr Andersen and her team are using that unprecedented occurrence to their advantage and have secured funding for the fire blanket project to try to better understand how the management of the bog influences its reaction to the fire.
Another important research project that ERI scientists are working on is to do with pharmaceuticals getting into our watercourses. Many everyday medicines do not fully metabolise in the body and are routinely excreted and washed into our sewers, which, in turn, enter our waste water treatment plants. Some conventional treatment plants—especially those in rural areas—are unable to fully remove them.
For the past year, those scientists have been monitoring levels of pharmaceuticals in the River Dee in Aberdeenshire. Results show that medicines such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, trimethoprim and carbamazepine have been detected.
The data will continue to be collected in order to provide evidence-based research for possible policy changes to include maximum levels of pharmaceuticals in environmental quality standards, which is something that—bizarrely enough—does not happen at the moment.
In Scotland, we rightly pride ourselves on the quality of our water, which is of huge importance to our economy. However, there are many challenges, current and future, that will have to be resolved if we are to continue to benefit. The UHI’s water quality innovation group, chaired by the ERI’s Professor Stuart Gibb, was set up to find solutions to the challenges, particularly in rural and sparsely populated areas. The group draws on expertise from around the world. At its previous meeting, there was collaboration between science, business and other stakeholders interested in water quality. Those parties will continue to work towards the development of innovative products that will help to meet policy and regulation changes.
The ERI is making fantastic scientific progress in many fields, and the work of the people there has never been more essential. I wish them and all the students and specialists who come to the area from the EU and around the world well in their future endeavours, I thank them for their time and work, and hope that the connections and, indeed, the friendships that they are making continue for many years to come.
So far, this has been a very good debate. Earlier you said that there might be an extra minute of speaking time, Presiding Officer. I was interested to see Brian Whittle celebrate that. After years of running round a track in the least amount of time that he could manage, he is now celebrating how long he can debate topics. How the mighty have fallen.
There are a number of personal and probably selfish reasons why I am so keen to take part in this debate. First, I, too, emphasise that Scotland punches well and truly above its weight in science and research activity. That has always been the case. For a start, Scotland has four universities in the world top 200 of the Times Higher Education world university rankings. That was recognised in the report that the Scottish Science Advisory Council published this year, which compares how Scotland’s science research sector performed over the past decade against other similar-sized countries. The SSAC found that
“Scottish research is high quality: in terms of citations per researcher, Scotland is number one compared to the other UK nations and the ten other countries in the report” and that
“Scottish researchers are ‘very productive’: around 10% of the UK’s researchers are based in Scotland”.
Having listened to Shona Robison talking about Dundee, I could not carry on without mentioning the research and educational facilities that the great town of Paisley has brought to us.
I have to say that we had a bet on up here—with no money changing hands—on how long it would take you to mention Paisley. We were all wrong–you have lasted longer than we thought you would. [
Thank you very much.
Weather forecasting was developed at the old engineering school in Paisley in the 1940s. That might not be a positive thing for us with our climate, but we gave that ability to the world.
Scotland’s excellence in research is underpinned by extensive collaborations worldwide. This is an important part of the debate, and one that I want to expand on later. Scottish Government funding to the Scottish Funding Council in 2019-20 has stayed at £285 million. That enables Scottish universities to continue to be very successful in gathering further funding from UK Research and Innovation, the EU and third and private sector sources.
That model ensures that we can continue to punch above our weight.
Where research is concerned, we have another advantage. We are a nation of 5 million people. For research into various long-term conditions and diseases, in pure research terms we are a large enough sample to test just about anything, but small and organised enough to be able to provide quality data.
All that brings me to my own, very personal and very selfish, reasons for wanting to take part in today’s debate. As many members know, my wife Stacey has multiple sclerosis. Here in Scotland, we have a higher incidence of MS per head of population than anywhere else in the world.
There are over 100,000 people in the UK living with MS. Many of them are in their 20s or 30s, which are key working years for us all, and 10 to 15 per cent of them have primary-progressive MS, which progresses from their very first symptoms. Eighty-five per cent of people with MS are initially diagnosed with relapsing forms of the condition. They have distinct attacks of symptoms, with underlying damage building up over time and leading to secondary-progressive MS, usually within about 15 years. Everyone has seen how Stacey has ended up disabled as she currently is. She has secondary-progressive MS.
There are currently 13 disease-modifying therapies—DMTs—licensed for use with MS patients here in Scotland. Those therapies slow down damage and reduce relapses. It was not always like that. Stacey has a level of disability because those DMTs were not around, or available, at the time she needed them. We are not bitter about that because we can both see the opportunity we have, through research, to make things even better for those living with MS.
If members compare the DMTs that are available now for patients with MS to those that were available 20 years ago, they will understand why I advocate for Scotland’s place in the world of science. I recently had the chance to meet and to discuss the future of multiple sclerosis with Professor Siddharthan Chandran of the Anne Rowling clinic and the University of Edinburgh, who was able to show me much of the work that they are doing on MS. That will help most neurological conditions, because the clinic currently works on motor neurone disease, MS and dementia. Professor Chandran’s research into MS is really interesting, because he sees it as a gateway to helping those other conditions in the long term.
Scotland is a nation of only 5 million people, but we have more people with MS than anywhere else in the world. Our nation is the perfect test subject: we are small enough to be able to manage such a project but large enough to make a difference. We have a fully integrated health service and should be able to get anyone that we need around the table. The Anne Rowling clinic is a perfect example of how Scotland is punching above its weight. Through the University of Edinburgh, it competes with the Harvards and Cambridges of the world, and Professor Chandran himself was previously at the University of Cambridge. The clinic’s funding is a mixed basket of private and public money, and it recruits some of the best people in the world. Professor Chandran has told me that he believes that we could soon have a cure for MS and that Scotland could lead the way in achieving that. That is good enough for me, Presiding Officer. Our wee nation is a big player in the world of science and research.
I have given members some personal examples, which come solely from the field of neurology, but I am sure that we could all find similar examples of our own. Science in Scotland will continue to be a giant in the world of research through using our own national inquisitiveness and talent, helped by the fact that people from all over the world want to live and work here. We must continue to invest in research, whether it be through the public or the private sector. We can be a centre of excellence in science, and especially in the world of neurology.
I am delighted to speak in the debate, which highlights Scotland’s role as a science nation.
The debate is happening just two days after the 160th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Members might ask what relevance that has to Scotland’s scientific history. In answer, I am proud to say that the concept of evolution originated nearly a hundred years earlier, here in Scotland, through an ancestor of mine: James Burnett, Lord Monboddo.
Some scholars consider Monboddo to have been a precursive thinker in the theory of evolution, and credit him with anticipating the idea of natural selection, which was read by Erasmus Darwin and acknowledged in his writing. Subsequently, Charles Darwin read the works of his grandfather—Erasmus—and later developed the ideas into a scientific theory.
I am not sure whether that constitutes a need for me to declare an interest, but I am more than happy to do so, if it does.
In addition to being the father of Robert Burns’s muse Eliza, Monboddo was an eccentric Scottish judge as well as a scholar of linguistic evolution and philosopher. He came from the age of enlightenment, during which Scotland produced a great selection of scientists who made discoveries in a range of fields. There were chemists and physicians, including Joseph Black, who is best known for his discoveries of latent heat, specific heat and carbon dioxide, and who has been honoured by having chemistry buildings named after him at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities.
We also have the fortune of having George Forbes, who was an electrical engineer who experimented in using carbon for the brushes in electric motors, which is the universal choice in electricity generation to this day and is a concept that is critical to our decarbonisation programme. Of course, the public will be glued to their screens watching our speeches today because of John Logie Baird, who was one of the inventors of the mechanical television and was the first person to demonstrate publicly the colour television system.
Scotland has a proud history of scientific endeavour. We are home to a number of UK scientific institutions, with Scotland’s universities being world leaders in the scientific community. It is fortunate for future generations that we still have many budding scientists coming through our schools. On Friday, I was delighted to visit some Banchory academy students who had, at Silverstone in October, taken part in an international 90-mile race in the electric car that they had built from scratch. It is great to see students in our schools taking part in initiatives that will be integral to our future.
That education must flow through to business. Just this morning, I met the chief executive of ABB, which spends some £1.5 billion on research and development annually, and is the second-largest supplier of robots in the world. Its work, from the robotarium at Heriot-Watt University to the carbon-capture demonstration plant at Imperial College London, shows how business is leading the way—but it is for Governments to set out the path.
Science affects all industries. NFU Scotland notes that the agriculture industry is founded on scientific principles and that, for many years, the sector’s advancement has been driven by world-leading research that has been conducted in Scotland’s science and research institutes. Science in agriculture is vital in helping to combat climate change. With ambitious targets, it is essential that our agriculture industry finds new and innovative ways of reducing its emissions.
In my role as shadow spokesperson for business, energy and innovation, I particularly enjoy engaging with companies across Scotland on new solutions that they have created. For example, the Data Lab innovation centre carries out work in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow. Although data science is perhaps not a well-known field, work in it will soon become commonplace in businesses across Scotland and the UK, with the field being expected to contribute more than £20 billion to Scotland’s economy by the end of next year.
I am pleased that being part of the UK has such a positive impact on our life sciences sector. It is encouraging to read that the UK life sciences sector is soaring, with record turnover of more than £70 billion. Small and medium-sized enterprises now account for 82 per cent of businesses and 24 per cent of employment in UK life sciences. In 2018, the UK Government published “Life Sciences Sector Deal 2, 2018”, which will help to ensure that new pioneering treatments and medical technologies are produced in the UK. It highlighted the progress that has been made, as well as the new commitments from our UK Government and the wider industry.
However, due to the SNP’s obsession with independence, progress on important issues such as STEM subjects has been hindered up here in Scotland. The proof is in the figures. The number of employers that are flagging up STEM skills shortages has increased. In 2015, the Scottish Government’s annual report on STEM found that the proportion of STEM employers in Scotland with at least one skills-shortage vacancy was 6.4 per cent. In 2017, that figure had risen to 7.7 per cent. That is simply not acceptable: we can and must do better.
We are a country with a proud heritage of scientific thought, but the SNP Government is dimming the lights in a country that was once known for its enlightenment.
I will try not to mention politics, Brexit, or the single word that the Tories are concentrating on because they do not have a single effective policy.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Scotland’s contribution to the world is renowned—from mammal cloning to the television, to penicillin, to the telephone to many more inventions.
Scotland is a science and research nation, and we already punch above our weight and enjoy a global reputation for research and innovation. That reputation continues into the modern world, with research and development in abundance here. Scotland more than punches above its weight in science, research activity and impact.
In 2016 and 2017, Scottish universities secured £282 million, which was equivalent to 9.2 per cent of the £3 billion of UK research councils’ spending that was allocated for grants, studentships and fellowships. In addition, Scottish universities have so far secured almost €650 million from the EU horizon 2020 programme, which represents about an 11 per cent share of the UK’s allocated funds from that programme, as at July 2019.
Scotland’s share of the top 1 per cent of the world’s most-cited publications between 2007 and 2016 is the largest of all UK nations. Scotland also has four universities in the top 200 of
’s world university rankings for 2019-20. That is more top universities per head than any country except Switzerland.
Three of our universities are in the world top 200 for research volume, income and reputation, and four are in the top 200 for research influence and citations. Nine Scottish universities are in the world top 200 for international outlook related to staff, students and research. That was also recognised in a report that the Scottish Science Advisory Council published this year.
I have given a lot of numbers. I could make a joke about that being appropriate for a science and research geek, but I will leave that for another time. Those numbers and facts tell a good story about Scotland and our institutions. They show that we are an outward-looking nation that makes an immense contribution.
The SNP Government recognises that, so I am sure that it will continue to invest in core research and knowledge exchange in Scottish universities, thereby allowing them to compete successfully for other funding. In 2019-20, the baseline grant for university research and innovation that is provided by the Scottish Government via the Scottish Funding Council was maintained at £285 million in order to continue to strengthen the status of that research and innovation. In practice, that means Scottish universities being enabled to continue to be very successful in competing for funding from other sources.
Scottish universities receive almost 75 per cent of their research and innovation income from United Kingdom Research and Innovation, the European Union, third sector sources and private sector sources. The SFC core grant for research and innovation includes the university innovation fund, which will be worth £13.5 million in 2019-20. It has the explicit objective of supporting the Scottish Government’s economic strategy—in particular, the innovation pillar—via effective translation of research excellence into economic and societal benefit for Scotland. That reiterates our commitment to our world-class research and development, and to innovation being used to shape a better Scotland and, I hope, an independent—Oh, I am sorry; I had meant not to use that word—Scotland.
The Scottish Government continues to fund a network of innovation centres. The Scottish Government, the SFC and the enterprise agencies have committed up to £75 million for phase 2, from 2019 to 2024, to ensure that world-leading collaborations between businesses, universities, colleges, the public sector and others can capitalise on Scotland’s world-class research.
We are not just looking within Scotland: indeed, excellence in research is underpinned by our extensive collaborations worldwide. Scotland can point to significant successes in working across European boundaries with international research centres that are increasingly attracted to Scotland by the quality of our research base.
Scotland has long excelled in science and research, therefore it is only right that it should be celebrated as a science nation, and not only in the chamber today, but every day.
At the beginning of my speech, I reflected on the notable contributions to research and science from Scots of the near past, but we have even more modern inventions. Admittedly, I am not much of a gamer, but I know that “Grand Theft Auto” has become a cult classic and is the brainchild of Scottish video game designers extraordinaire David Jones and Mike Dailly.
The question is, how do we continue to shape and create that innovation and the science nation? STEM is an integral part of our future economic and social development, so we want everyone in Scotland to build a strong base of STEM skills and knowledge. That is part of the answer, and it is why STEM education is a priority of the SNP Government. The Scottish Government published its STEM education and training strategy in 2017, which
“aims to build Scotland's capacity to deliver excellent STEM learning, and to close equity gaps in participation and attainment in STEM. It also aims to inspire young people and adults to study STEM, and to provide a better connection between STEM education and training and the needs of the labour market in Scotland.”
We rightly have a focus on encouraging young women to enter STEM industries and to see STEM as part of their future, thereby creating the next generation of scientists and innovators.
Presiding Officer, I will take you at your word and take a bit more time—I am enjoying this. Scotland’s world-class research plays a key role in economic, societal and environmental challenges, both nationally and globally. I am getting back at our Conservative friends who have said nothing in regard to my excellent speech. [
Scotland’s research supports inclusive and sustainable economic growth that delivers highly skilled people to the labour market, creates new businesses, improves the performance of existing public and private organisations and attracts foreign direct investment through the creation and application of new knowledge.
Researchers in Scotland are at the forefront of multidisciplinary international research collaborations that tackle national and global challenges and drive forward the frontiers of knowledge.
I am proud that we have had the chance today to recognise Scotland’s role as a science nation. Long may it continue.
As the minister predicted, we have heard today about Scotland’s pedigree as a science nation, with lots of examples of great scientists from the past. Alexander Burnett probably wins the prize by claiming that a member of his family developed the idea of natural selection 100 years before Darwin did. I feel compelled to point out to him that there is another Scottish connection with that particular science—Darwin himself first developed his ideas of evolution and natural selection while strolling along the beach in Prestonpans in East Lothian when he was a student at the University of Edinburgh. All great things come not only from Scotland, but from East Lothian.
Quite rightly, we have heard more about what we have to do in order to sustain Scotland as a science nation into the future. I will comment on some of those points, although I will not have time to talk about all of them.
George Adam made an important point: we have to make the most of Scotland not only as a science nation, but as a research nation. Due to our size and the amount of available data on our population and demography, we are quite a useful place particularly for medical research.
A number of speakers, including me, talked about the importance of bringing future scientists through in our schools. The core issue is that of subject choice—there is overwhelming evidence that science and maths subjects are being squeezed out of the curriculum. The Scottish Government has undertaken a review of the senior phase in our schools. I say to the minister that, as the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, he must make absolutely sure that protecting access to science subjects is a key part of that review.
Beatrice Wishart and Rhoda Grant talked about the well-understood and well-evidenced challenge of the barriers that young girls and young women face when choosing science subjects and going on to a career in science. The key piece of evidence referred to by Beatrice Wishart is the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s “Tapping all our Talents” report of 2012 and its progress report, which was published last year. Although the latter shows progress, it also shows the predominance of men in senior positions, even in those sciences with a reasonable gender balance—biological sciences, for example. That leads to the gender pay gap that Rhoda Grant mentioned, whereby the better-paid senior positions are, it would appear, still disproportionately reserved for men. The report makes a significant series of recommendations on how to address that.
Rhoda Grant talked about the Roslin institute and the WISE programme. The Roslin institute is a good example to look at in addressing the gender balance issue because it is also the only research institution in Scotland with a gold award in the Athena SWAN programme. One of the ways in which the programme has been progressed is through funding bodies insisting on institutions having it in place before they will give funding. When the Scottish Government looks at how the SFC makes funding decisions, perhaps there is something there to think about.
Albert Einstein said:
“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
That is also true of a science nation. The minister sort of referred to that when he talked about the importance of respecting the experts, respecting science, and respecting the ethics of science. That is absolutely right, but Mr Mundell also made an important point when he said that, if we decide to respect the experts, we cannot cherry pick which ones we decide to respect. I say gently to the Scottish Government that it has not always respected the experts’ opinions on, for example, the role that nuclear power can play in decarbonising our electricity supply, or on the role of research into genetic modification. In those cases, the experts have not really been listened to.
The member makes an interesting point, but surely he is not suggesting that scientists should make policy. We have elected politicians to apply ethics and other criteria when deciding on the best policies to implement, and they should be informed by good science. It is not therefore a case of disrespecting the science on genetic modification or nuclear power; it is about taking the policy position that they are not the best options for Scotland.
Of course that is true, and one of the ways in which policy makers do that is through the scientific advisers. We have a good chief scientific adviser in Sheila Rowan, as the minister said himself. However, here we have another example of a time when the Scottish Government was not at the forefront of something. Professor Rowan was appointed after a long interregnum of almost two years when we had no chief scientific adviser. The sense of urgency that we need to see has not always been there.
Members talked about lots of good things, such as the innovation centres. It would have been good to discuss research pooling—the Scottish universities physics alliance, of which Professor Rowan was part, is a good example of that.
In the end, it all comes down to this: if we want Scotland to be a science nation, we have to put our money where our mouth is. Let us return to the issue when we debate the budget, and let us see the investment that our universities tell us that they need if we are to assure our future as a science nation.
I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
In George Adam’s preamble to his speech, he talked about my excitement at perhaps getting an extra minute to talk about science, and then he spoke for an extra two minutes, to make sure that I would not get that extra minute. [
A big revelation of the debate has been that Darwin was 100 years too late in coming up with his theory of evolution, because Alexander Burnett’s family had sorted that out a long time before.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. Not long ago, the Parliament debated innovation, and just last week, Iain Gray led a fascinating members’ business debate on the international year of the periodic table. What a fantastic debate that was; the Presiding Officer was positively purring with excitement as we discussed the topic. Many MSPs missed that debate, but the good news is that they can watch it on Parliament TV—I know that they want to do so.
Scotland is unquestionably a science nation. Over the centuries, at home and around the world, Scottish scientists have pioneered many breakthrough discoveries that changed our world. Scots and Scotland have often led the way with innovations that have become ubiquitous in the modern world.
I listened with interest to Richard Lochhead’s speech. He mentioned the B-word—Brexit—and its threat to collaboration in the science world. Collaboration is hugely important to the advancement of science and we need to encourage it. There is a global approach, for example, to space exploration. However, I note that many of the world’s leading achievements in science, many of them rooted in Scotland, were made long before the European Union was thought of and long before we joined the union. Science has led the way in seeking excellence and collaboration beyond country boundaries for a long time, and I am sure that it will continue to do so.
Richard Lochhead was right to say that Scotland is fantastic when it comes to innovation and invention. However, we need to do better when it comes to the next step, which is the implementation of the technology and the creation of an environment in which it can be used to grow businesses of size. In that context, Shona Robison was right to say that Dundee is an exemplary tech hub for life sciences and gaming. Who knew that Richard Lyle was an expert in “Grand Theft Auto”? We learn something every day. We are good at developing small and medium-sized businesses but we are not quite as good at developing those into bigger businesses. Too many of our innovative companies are purchased by the United States or China and developed further afield.
Even Scotland’s countryside has contributed to science. In 1774, Schiehallion, in Perthshire, was chosen as the ideal location for a team of scientists who were seeking to discover the mean density of the earth. The astronomer royal at the time, Nevil Maskelyne, who conducted the experiment, said that it
“would ... do honour to the nation where it was made”.
Is the motion a bit complacent? There is no small amount of back-patting in it, albeit that that is well deserved, but far less is said about the future of Scottish science, beyond a reference to the conclusions of the science and research working group.
At its core, science is about questions and answers. Often, when we find answers, they provoke new questions. It is an endless process of discovery. Sometimes we find a new answer and sometimes we find a new question, but there is never an end to what science can teach us or do for us. Therefore, we have to keep pushing the boundaries of science, exploring and discovering. Scotland has an enviable world-class reputation, but the competition for scientific discovery is only going to become more fierce, and we have to be ready.
The final line of the motion, on promoting “Scotland’s strengths”, is slightly concerning. We should be wary of narrowing our scientific focus to the point at which we give less to research that is not judged to be one of Scotland’s strengths. Yes, we have real strengths in arenas such as life sciences, aerospace and astronomy, but there is an important balance to be struck between focusing on specialist areas and ensuring that we can still benefit from cross-pollination and collaboration among different scientific fields.
We do not always know which projects or ideas will prove to be the right ones, or which will end up being catalysts for something even more important. Some of our greatest scientific breakthroughs have happened by accident, or their true value was discovered only much later. Scotland’s own Alexander Fleming, who was born in Darvel in East Ayrshire, discovered penicillin entirely by accident. The discovery of the electron in 1897 provided an interesting fact about the structure of the universe, but it had no practical application. Today, our entire world runs on electronics.
Scotland is a science nation, but science is a global endeavour. Our scientists work around the world, and scientists of other nationalities work here. Science is a global language—even a universal language, as we discussed at length in Iain Gray’s debate on the periodic table last week.
Science and scientific discovery are a race. We co-operate around the world, but being the nation that is at the forefront of science or the first to make a discovery gives a competitive advantage.
We have already touched on the value of science in policy making. As Adam Smith said:
“Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”
Many of the challenges facing Scotland today will require scientific solutions or, at the very least, policy making that is supported by scientific evidence and discovery. At the forefront of that is climate change, and renewable technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and electric cars. Carbon capture has been talked about today, and we need to consider improved recycling and battery technology, and new sources of energy. It is the youth of today who are leading that debate and making us pay attention to climate change.
I am very interested in healthcare technology and science in health. We are particularly good in Scotland at developing healthcare technology—Dundee has been mentioned—but what we are not good at is adopting that technology in our healthcare system. When Nye Bevan spoke about the principles underlying the national health service, he talked about the medical arts of science and healing. When we are looking at healthcare technologies such as gene therapy, stem cell research and nanotechnology, we must also look at how we adopt that technology at the other end.
Oliver Mundell rightly highlighted the need for science in education. We need teaching that inspires, we need experiments in the classroom and we need relevance to the real world. We must foster a passion for science and the scientific method, but we must also allow pupils to be creative and try left-field ideas just to see what happens. We need to inspire pupils to take on the great science and engineering challenges that face us, from fighting cancer to developing new battery technologies and energy sources and improving food production. We need to look at the curriculum for excellence, which Oliver Mundell also mentioned, and the current squeeze on STEM subjects. We must ensure that STEM subjects are accessible to all because, as Alexander Burnett said, too many tech companies out there report a shortage of staff in STEM subjects.
There is much that I would love to say. We need to continue to be as ambitious in our support for science as we ask science to be in its quest for new discoveries. As Arthur C Clarke said:
“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”
Let us strive for the limits of possibility, push the edge of what is possible further into the distance and ensure that Scotland’s scientific community continues to make history.
I thank members for their contributions to this debate in celebration of Scotland’s scientific heritage and the continuing excellence that we see in our country today and that we will see for a long time to come.
Many members mentioned scientific endeavours in their corners of Scotland. Of course, George Adam managed to mention Paisley, doing so in his first sentence. I thought that he wanted to give the impression that Paisley invented the weather. If he had done, I would have said that it did not do a very good job of that. However, he went on to talk about other issues that are close to his heart, particularly the science around treatments for MS. He spoke about the advances that have occurred in that regard and the on-going work at the Anne Rowling centre at the University of Edinburgh, and he explained how Scotland is punching above its weight in that area.
Shona Robison mentioned the amazing work that is going on in the University of Dundee, and, in particular, paid tribute to the work that has been done there in relation to the early diagnosis of cancer. She also spoke about the James Hutton Institute, which is in the Dundee area, and its work on vertical farming, which can address food security issues, low-carbon food production and other matters.
All the examples that were mentioned by members are little points of light that represent all of the scientific discovery and endeavour that is taking place in every corner of our nation, and of which we should be proud. As George Adam said, those examples show that Scotland is punching above its weight, because we are a nation of only 5 million people in a world of 7 billion people or thereabouts. We have an incredible legacy in this country—as many people said, that involves not only the past but the present.
There were various references to women in science. In my opening remarks, I mentioned Mary Somerville, and Clare Adamson mentioned many other female scientists with claims to fame. I should also mention that the Scottish Government’s chief scientific adviser is Professor Sheila Rowan, who is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Glasgow and is internationally renowned for her achievements and work in the context of gravitational waves.
I recommend that members visit the Royal Society of Edinburgh to see the exhibition on women in science that is taking place there. It highlights many of our most famous female scientists, including many of today’s scientists. I should also point out that the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh is Dame Anne Glover, who is a well-known scientist in her own right.
The debate went on to consider how we can ensure that there are women in science in the future, more women getting involved in science today and more females taking science subjects at school, college and university. It is important to address that, because that is a challenge, as many members said.
I should say that, following a successful three-year research project, Education Scotland has now appointed improving gender balance and equalities officers, who will work throughout Scotland to address gender imbalance and attainment at every age from three to 18. Further, each college and university now has a gender action plan that outlines how it will advance equality and reduce gender disparities within STEM and other areas of further and higher education.
A lot of work is also being done in early years education, where a lot of issues around stereotyping and perceptions must be addressed. There is a lot of evidence that says that, in order to do that, we must intervene in the early years of young girls’ education.
The briefing from Universities Scotland says that the number of people graduating with STEM degrees increased by 9 per cent over the past two years. The situation is improving, even though there is a long way to go. Of course, the Scottish Government has introduced STEM bursaries of up to £20,000 for career changers. Those bursaries are oversubscribed, and are proving to be a popular measure to encourage people to change career and go into teaching jobs in STEM subjects.
Another issue that was raised was research funding. It is important to put on record the fact that the Scottish Government is continuing to invest £285 million in core university research funding.
Absolutely. We must recognise that the third sector and the charitable sector invest literally hundreds of millions of pounds in research projects in Scotland.
The comment was made that the Scottish Government does not pass on the Barnett consequentials from UK research, but that is not true—in 2018-19, we passed on the £11.6 million of budget consequentials for university research. It should be noted that the higher education sector attracts £800 million per year of research funds from other sources. Although the share of UK Research and Innovation funding has gone down slightly, as some members have said, the actual figure has increased, because UKRI is hosting more funding.
It has been mentioned that Scotland’s constitutional arrangements are very relevant to the amount of research funding that comes into Scotland. Research funding knows no boundaries, because it is scientific excellence, not borders between countries, that attracts research funding. That is why Scotland has been so successful in attracting scientific funds from many different sources in many different sectors.
However, if a country withdraws from international arrangements, that can be damaging. The threat to research funding is not the independence debate, as some members have said; the immediate threat that is on the lips of every researcher in Scotland as we speak is the threat of Brexit. Over the past few years, Scotland has secured almost €650 million of funding through the EU’s horizon 2020 programme. If Brexit goes ahead and we leave the EU, that money will be endangered. That is the constitutional change that will endanger the research funding that comes to Scotland, and we should all bear that in mind.
I set up the science and research working group, which is chaired by Scotland’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sheila Rowan, because we want to bring together all the stakeholders in academia to celebrate Scottish science and to make it work even better for Scotland through greater collaboration and a higher international profile. We want to make sure that the rest of the world knows that Scotland is a science nation, as that will attract more research funds and inward investment.
As I mentioned, the first ever science and research summit was held in June. It had three key themes: improving science and research collaboration across Scotland; driving science and research excellence in Scotland; and promoting and marketing Scotland’s science and research internationally. We have an amazing story to tell, but I do not think that we tell it often enough or loudly enough. We should tell it to our own people to inspire them to take up scientific careers and get involved in research and innovation. We should also tell it to the rest of the world, because although we have a great reputation around the world, we should make more of it and sell Scotland’s story. That way, we would attract more research funding, more collaboration and more inward investment to our country.
The economic contribution that is made by science and research is paramount. It is worth highlighting the Scottish Government’s export growth plan, which was launched earlier this year. It made the link between trade and excellence in science, research and innovation. In addition, as many people will be aware, through Derek Mackay, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, we commissioned the eminent economist Professor Anton Muscatelli of the University of Glasgow to review the economic impact that universities in Scotland make by working with business, which needs to be highlighted.
During these uncertain times, it is more important than ever that our graduates, especially those from other countries, turn their positive experiences here in Scotland into influence and support for our country. We want to remain one of the world’s leading science and innovation nations, and it is extremely important that we are seen to be an outward-looking, tolerant country that is open to Europe and the rest of the world. We must strain every sinew to make sure that we are seen as a welcoming country. If Brexit goes ahead, that will set us back. We will not end up in a better place or even the same position that we are starting from. That is the message from every university, every research institution, every researcher and every research fund. That will be the biggest challenge to maintaining our reputation as a science nation in the years ahead.
We will have to respond to whatever happens. We will have to ensure that every graduate and every researcher who comes here for a while and then goes back to their home country is an ambassador for, and remains a friend of, Scotland. That is why we are pursuing a new strategy for alumni around the world, which will deliver huge dividends for this country.
I thank members for all their contributions in celebrating Scotland as one of the world’s leading science nations. We should build on that, deliver the social and economic contribution that that brings to our country and make sure that our science, intellectual capital and knowledge contribute to solving the world’s problems, whether we are talking about overpopulation, food security or tackling climate change, on which we can lead the world. That is what the future should hold for our country, and that will mean jobs, success and a better Scotland.
If no member objects, I would be minded to accept a motion without notice to bring forward decision time to now. As no one objects, I call on the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans to move such a motion.
That, under Rule 11.2.4 of Standing Orders, Decision Time on Tuesday 26 November be taken at 4.10 pm.—[
Motion agreed to.