In basic science, as shown by counts of publications, Nobel Prizes, or any other index, British science has been quite exceptionally successful. It has maintained its place as the second country in science throughout all the changes in the contents and organisation of science that have occurred since the eighteenth century, and its attainments throughout the whole period have probably surpassed those of every other country.’ So wrote Professor Joseph Ben-David in his classic study, ‘The Scientist’s Role In Society’.
Ben-David pointed out that the French led in 1800, the Germans in 1900, and the USA from the 1920s. There is no shame in being second to the USA. Their government science budgets are enormously bigger than ours. We deliver the best research outcomes per pound (or dollar (or any other currency)) in the world.
Much of our research is done in universities. Its quality is a crucially important factor in determining their rank. In the 2013-14 THE World University Rankings, USA came top with 76 universities in the top 200. The UK was second with 31 (5 of them in Scotland). Germany had 10 and France 8.
Top quality research in the UK is funded by the Research Councils. Allocations are made on the scientific strength of applications. The process is fiercely competitive; only 20-25% of applications are successful. Scottish universities do extremely well; in 2012-13 they won UK Research Council grants worth £275 million, 13.1% of all awards to a nation with only 8.4% of the UK population.
Not only has the SNP Government endorsed this UK benefit, its White Paper proposes that this British research system should continue after independence. Michael Russell, MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education, said on June11 2014 at a meeting on Research Funding organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh that ‘The Scottish Government is determined that an independent Scotland would remain part of a common research area with the rUK’.
But Dr Greg Clark, MP, UK Minister for Universities, Science and Cities said on July 24 at the second meeting on research funding organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, that ‘Should Scotland become independent, it would no longer be part of the common research framework which currently exists across the UK….in order to be part of the common research area, the participants need to be part of the UK’. He also said that there is ‘No international precedent for sharing or replicating a system on the scale of the current UK funding streams across international borders’.
In August the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh followed these two meetings with a statement. It said that because of the divergence between the position of the Scottish and UK governments’ it is simply not possible at this time to be certain that agreement could be reached to set up a common research area’. It welcomed the ‘Cabinet Secretary’s assurances that there would be no adverse impact on research funding from Scotland’s transition to independence’ but noted a lack of clarity about ‘whether this commitment could be sustained in the long term’. It concluded by observing that ‘it seems it will not be possible to achieve further clarity on several key issues until after the (Referendum) outcome is known. This does not, however, diminish the continuing sense of uncertainty and unease felt by many in the research community’.
Since its evolution started in the mid 17th century, Scots have been at the heart of the British science system, developing it and benefitting from it, and we have always punched above our weight. Without doubt, leaving the UK would mean leaving it as well. It would diminish science in the rest of the UK too. We are better together!