On Monday the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, visited Edinburgh where he took in, among other things, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and was treated to an explanation of how adaptive optics work. There being less than a year to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the visit was always likely to generate political discussion and this turned out to be the case.
According to a Guardian piece
Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.
David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.
Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.
“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.
Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.
It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?
It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to Willetts) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for English science.
For what it’s worth, I am a complete agnostic about Scottish independence – I really think its for the Scots to decide – but I don’t think it would benefit the rest of the UK from the point of view of science funding. I think it’s much more likely that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom then the part of the science budget it currently receives would be cancelled rather than redistributed, which would leave us no better off at all.