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Independence wouldn’t break research ties, says Scottish government

The Scottish government is hoping to put researchers’ minds at ease ahead of a crucial referendum this autumn, but has already been challenged on the feasibility of its plans.

Scotland’s future: higher education research in an independent Scotland, published on 30 April, says that if on 18 September voters choose independence, Scotland would seek to stay part of the existing research system of the United Kingdom. There would even be some perks, it adds, such as a boost in its influence over spending (as Scotland’s financial contribution to the UK research council funding pot would become more direct) and a loosening of immigration restrictions for researchers coming to Scotland from outside of the European Union.

Scotland’s devolved government — run by the pro-independence Scottish National Party — said that an independent Scotland would try to negotiate a “fair funding formula” for paying into, and receiving funding from, the UK research councils (worth a total of £2.9 billion (US$4.9 billion) UK-wide in 2012–13). Scotland’s strength in research means that it currently gets out more cash out from the research-council system than it puts in. In 2012–13, Scottish institutions received 10.7% of the total UK research-council spending, compared to a UK population share of 8.3% and tax contribution of 9.4%.

The Scottish government said that a formula should remain based “on merit not geography”, calculated relative to population share but also taking into account the amount its institutions receive. If allocations were to be brought into line with contributions, Scotland would see a post-break-up cut of around £70 million.

But the idea that the status quo could continue could be wishful thinking. The report quotes Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, telling members of the Scottish Parliament that Research Councils UK (RCUK) “would like to see a single research system continue whether there is a yes vote for independence or not”. But RCUK swiftly responded that this does not mean the body supports an independent Scotland remaining part of the single system. In a statement published later that day it said: “Should there be a vote for independence the current system could not continue. There would need to be discussions about how Scotland and the UK would work together in the future, as Professor Boyle stressed in the evidence he gave to the Scottish Government in March.”

Earlier this year, UK science minister David Willetts told the Scottish Affairs Committee that the research system would see “big changes” if Scotland became independent. The working relationship in research would become more like that between the United Kingdom and other European countries, he said, than the single system that exists at the moment.

Through its devolved powers, Scotland already does some things differently to the rest of the United Kingdom. Its research pools — cross-institution networks that focus on specific disciplines — are popular with policy-makers and researchers alike. Scotland’s record on university spin-outs is also better than the rest of the United Kingdom’s. The nation was the only one in the United Kingdom to increase the number of life-science spin-outs from its universities in recent years — something an independent report published last year said could be linked to increased public sector support for innovation in the life sciences in Scotland.

Omid Omidvar, a social scientist at the Innogen centre at the University of Edinburgh, which runs the Future of the UK and Scotland programme, says that the academicians he has interviewed (for a yet-to-be-published study) were divided in their attitudes towards Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom sharing a research system. Some thought the practice should continue, but others mentioned that independence might give Scotland some flexibility in modifying the Research Excellence Framework, for example by making it more relevant to industrial needs.

Scottish collaboration with other UK universities could be negatively affected if Scotland becomes independent, says Omidvar. But another promise — to introduce a more flexible immigration structure — could potentially help to fill gaps in the skills base and boost entrepreneurship, he adds. This week’s report says Scotland would reinstate the post-study work visa for students, which was scrapped in the United Kingdom in 2012. In a report published earlier this year, the Science and Technology Select Committee of the UK House of Lords said the United Kingdom was now “unwelcoming” to international science students, and recommended reinstating the visa.

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