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SNP plans for research post-independence

Science minister consulting on future funding models

Scotland’s government is considering creating separate research councils if Scotland becomes an independent country, Alasdair Allan, the minister for learning, science and Scotland’s languages, has said.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Allan, a Scottish National Party MSP for the Western Isles, said there is already what he called the “beginnings of a consultation” on future research funding models and that the government is keeping an open mind about the need for independent research councils.

“There is a whole obvious range of options, one is that you could—like Ireland—have independent research councils,” he said. “Or…there’s no reason why we couldn’t cooperate with the rest of the UK and continue to pay into a joint research council.”

Allan, who has a PhD in Scots language from the University of Aberdeen, was appointed science minister in December 2011, changing his brief from minister for learning and skills. He says he is talking informally with a “number of scientists” about what impact independence could have on research. “More formally, the government will certainly enter into consultation with the scientific community about what their views are,” he added. “I am more than confident that independence will not only allow Scotland’s traditional research to continue but will increase it.”

In an email to Research Fortnight, Labour’s science shadow minister Chi Onwurah said: “I’m sure Scotland could build up an effective research council capability over time, but it would mean years of disruption and uncertainty at a time when all energies should be focused on supporting innovation and growth. In addition, the long term impact of fragmentation and increased isolation would be negative for scientific communities.”

Scotland’s universities get most of their funding for teaching and research through the Scottish Funding Council. However, a large part of their research income comes from the UK research councils and a smaller part from the European Union.

Ian Halliday, former president of the European Science Foundation and previous chief executive of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, warns that an independent Scotland might struggle to finance its research. He stresses that it would have to set up a significant national research budget, as other sources, such as European funding, account for a relatively small amount of total research income.

Halliday also says politicians would be unable to resist meddling in a Scottish research council. “It’s a small-country effect, everybody knows everybody.”

Tim O’Shea, the vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, on the other hand, is less worried. He says the current funding system for research has worked well but argues there are many possible ways to re-arrange it. “I think one of the reasons for the relative success of UK research has been the dual-support system and the Research Assessment Exercise. So I think one should be very cautious about moving away from those models,” he says. “The thing that gives me confidence is…that the senior members of the government are very aware [of these issues].”

Meanwhile, the Royal Society of Edinburgh said it would need to subject “any detailed proposal to create a Scottish research council…to the most careful scrutiny before we could comment”.

“The Scottish research community will want to ensure the benefits of the present arrangements continue, irrespective of whether there is further constitutional change,” said RSE fellow Steve Beaumont of the University of Glasgow.

Research income in Scotland in 2009-10

Scottish Funding Council £269.85 million

UK research councils* £330.90m

EU funds** £49.66m

Source: * Scottish government **HESA