“Scotland’s research interests will be much better served by remaining within the UK”

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Photo credit: Henry Legg
Professor Wilson Sibbett
Professor Wilson Sibbett. Photo credit: Henry Legg

With the referendum fast approaching, independence seems to be an inescapable topic of discussion, permeating all social circles. But in this whirlpool of opinion, have Scottish universities been making their voices heard?

In one of their first interventions in the independence debate, leading scientific researchers have expressed deep concerns over research funding for Scottish universities, arguing that they will lose out on millions of pounds of UK funding in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote in September.

According to an open letter signed by 14 of Scotland’s top academics, Scottish universities are being prevented from speaking out against independence as they feel “obliged to remain neutral” as beneficiaries of SNP government funding.

“Their silence should not be interpreted as evidence of tacit support for independence on the part of the life sciences research community,” the letter states.

Professor Wilson Sibbett, from the University of St Andrews’ School of Physics and Astronomy, was one of the signatories and was involved in writing the final draft.[pullquote]there’s no evidence to suggest that maintaining the funding could be guaranteed[/pullquote]

In an interview with The Saint, he said: “We think that the research community is not being well represented in any debates or any discussions so far.”

Its contents are implicitly anti-independence. “Growing out of our profound commitment to Scotland are grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly competitive arena of biomedical research,” the letter continues. “We contend that Scotland’s research interests will be much better served by remaining within the common research area called the United Kingdom.”

Reluctance to speak out

[pullquote]there is a reluctance to speak out in case there might be revenge attacks on the funding base[/pullquote]

For Professor Sibbett, the support for the letter suggests that “we spoke on behalf of a good many who had hitherto remained silent.”

Though Louise Richardson, the principal of the University, has previously urged staff to speak out on the debate despite political pressures, Professor Sibbett remains unimpressed with the level of discussion. “I think to some extent, for those who are currently employed at the University, there is a reluctance to speak out just in case there might be some detrimental, downstream, revenge attacks on the funding base that they currently enjoy.”

University staff are reluctant to speak out because “when some have done so, they have been targeted by those who have not wished them to make those opinions known.”

Last year Shona Robison, the SNP sports minister, made complaints to the University of Dundee after one of their history professors attended an event run by the Better Together campaign.

Researchers’ voices count

“The letter was very much written by a bunch of individuals who I would say have first-hand understanding of research,” Professor Sibbett said. To him, this is more valuable than a report produced by “a civil servant who is one or two steps removed from active research.”

[pullquote]those involved in active research have a number of sensitivities[/pullquote]

“I think those involved in active research have a number of sensitivities where they know what works at the moment, they know what threats there are to that working in the future and they know how devastating it would be if something happened that would impede their research going forward into the future.”

UK funding means quality research

“The research at Scottish universities currently is very, very good. But it is recognised that the funding that makes that possible is UK based funding, combined with Scottish government funding – which is attributable to a devolution formula – and also from charities which derive, some of it in Scotland, but a great deal of it outside Scotland. So Scotland is a large beneficiary from the point of view that the funding is taken from a larger community rather than just the five million people who are living here.”

Last year, Scotland’s universities received 13 per cent (£257 million) of all UK research funding, despite accounting for only 8.4 per cent of the population. They also benefited from a disproportionate amount of charitable and public medical funding at 11.5 per cent.

[pullquote]Scotland is a large beneficiary[/pullquote]

There are well established and easily accessible structures for funding within the UK, argues Professor Sibbett.

The Yes campaign claims that an independent Scotland could continue to receive this UK funding through a common research area. But the academics rejected this. In the open letter, they said the plan for a common research area was “fraught with difficulty and one that is unlikely to come to fruition”. If independent, Scotland would be a “competitor”; as such, it is unlikely that the UK would want to give them funding.

SNP promises

“The other thing which I would emphasise is that the Scottish government, in any of its suggestions, always implies that they could maintain the funding at the present level,” said Professor Sibbett. “There’s no suggestion that they would actually increase it,” and “there’s no evidence to suggest that maintaining the funding could be guaranteed.

“And without an increase in funding, I cannot see any argument for suggesting that Scotland’s research would be improved.”

[pullquote]there are a great many claims being made that are not factually based[/pullquote]

The SNP, however, argue that as a smaller nation Scotland would have more agility to seize any opportunity which arose in research. Scotland could create better linkages between academia and industry, they argue, and further promise more transparency in the funding process.

Professor Sibbett dismissed these claims.

“In terms of independence generally, there are a great many claims being made that are not factually based,” he explained. “Some of the numbers are inspirational at best and based on an expectation that the prosperity of Scotland would be enhanced as an independent country. There’s no guarantee that that would be the case. As a researcher, if I’m relying on resources which are drawn from a tax base involving 60 million people, I would feel much more comfortable with that than one drawn from five million people.”

Fears over independence

[pullquote]I would worry about a decline in the research quality[/pullquote]

His main fear is that an independent Scotland would be too small a nation to attract the high quality of researchers it currently boasts.

The smaller size of the nation would have “an impact on the attractiveness as seen from outside the country.”

“So I would worry about the funding, I would worry about the breadth of the funding base and I would worry about a decline in the research quality and the research standards of a smaller nation.”

For the professor, the quality of Scotland’s research has to come first. “I think it’s essential that universities in Scotland recognise that they are playing in a global research, competitive base.

“There’s no suggestion at the moment that any of the structures that are being suggested for the future would in themselves make research more competitive globally than it already is.”

Professor Sibbett concluded: “The thrust of this is, what can we as a community do to make sure that Scotland’s research in the areas of biology and medicine – which is important not just for Scotland but for humanity – is maintained? If we thought that an independent Scotland could bring that enhancement then we would not have written the letter.”

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