Scotland Should Decide…

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

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 the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) 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 science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?

 

18 Responses to “Scotland Should Decide…”

  1. John Womersley Says:

    Peter, I think in the case of ESO, ESA and CERN the situation is quite clear – these are intergovernmental organisations, and it is national governments that sign up. So even if an independent Scotland continued to participate in RCUK, RCUK could not represent Scotland in such fora. The Scottish government would have to make a decision to join.

    John

  2. Does that count as stepping out of Purdah, John? Anyway, isn’t Purdah that woman in The Avengers?

  3. “And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence?”

    There isn’t a precedent for this, but the opinion seems to be that EU membership would not be automatic, but would be the result of negotiations. These, however, could be arbitrarily fast (or not). However, the EU now specifies that new members have to introduce the Euro as soon as they meet the criteria. There is no opt-out possibility anymore (like the UK and Denmark did) and intentionally not meeting formal criteria (as Sweden does, in order to respect the result of a referendum against joining the common currency) is not allowed either. I don’t think that most Scottish people realize this.

    I agree: It is a decision the Scots themselves should make. I also support the rest-of-UK decision to say: if you go, you go; no monetary union.

    Note that Spain would probably do everything in its power to block EU membership of Scotland, since this could be seen as a precedent for parts of Spain declaring themselves independent. (Here as well, anyone who says that people in a region don’t have the right to break away or join a country hasn’t understood democracy).

    It’s not just the EU, though: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Supranational_European_Bodies-en.svg which doesn’t even mention ESO, ESA or the EBU.

    • Guam, by the way, is not the Pacific Island (which is a possession of the USA) but rather Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think the Scots would either have to introduce their own currency (because Westminster could not agree to full sterling unification without control over fiscal policy) or join the Euro (which they may not qualify for).

  4. The first link above is a bit confusing: “on a smaller scale, Norway, Sweden and Denmark do not need an overarching state called Scandinavia to enable research co-operation”

    While it is true that there is no state called Scandinavia (overarching or not), cooperation within Scandinavia and between Scandinavia and Finland has been quite close for a long time, in some cases even closer than between EU countries, for example, the right to live and work in any of these countries for citizens from any of these countries. This is certainly helped by more-or-less mutually intelligible languages (except Finnish, though until recently all Finns learned Swedish and these days everyone in Scandinavia and Finland speaks good Engish), low population density, more-or-less similar culture etc.

  5. Will the UK flag change if Scotland leaves the UK?

  6. Scott Dodelson Says:

    As an American, my role is to dumb down all substantive political debate. This post is far too thoughtful, so here is my attempt to reach the trivial, purely self-interested aspect. My son is starting university in England in two weeks; if Scotland votes for independence, apparently the exchange rate will drop from $1.61 per pound to $1.5, meaning I would save $2000 a year. Please vote for independence.

    • I’m flattered by your comment. You see, I’ve been endlessly patronised by both campaigns – who *each* argued we would be about $2000 better off with a Yes or No vote – and who did their very best to dumb down all substantive political debates and reduce this vote to trivial, purely self-interested aspects. Thank you for suggesting we might do otherwise!

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    This is a very serious issue, but today I’m not in a serious mood, so how about names for the Scots currency and who or what should be on the notes?

    • In the light of the many comparisons between an independent Scotland and Norway, how about the Scottish Krona?

      Obviously it should have a picture of an appropriately iconic Scottish personality. Lulu?

    • I’ve seen “scotty” suggested. 🙂 One could have Montgomery Scott, Sean Connery etc on the notes. Do I hear objections that these are not True Scotsmen? Well, we’ve all heard of the no-true-Scotsman fallacy. 🙂

      Seriously, resurrect a traditional name for some Scottish currency. Put Maxwell on them, Watt.

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