Science and Scotland

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into science and Scotland. Given its status as a national academy representing the sciences and other disciplines, the RSE champions the importance of a healthy and robust research ecosystem to solve societal challenges and contribute to economic prosperity.

Although Scotland is home to an exceptional research community, it is disadvantaged by the present funding regime and a lack of industry investment. By addressing these and other issues, Scotland can continue to be at the forefront of sectors such as space and renewable energy, attracting global talent and building on its tradition of impactful interdisciplinary collaboration.

ORAL EVIDENCE

The RSE was represented by Professor Julie Fitzpatrick FRSE at the oral evidence session. The panel unanimously sounded the alarm on the funding challenges facing research in Scotland.

KEY FINDINGS

Scotland is known for producing exceptional research with global relevance and impact. However, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the international influence of Scottish scientific research in the absence of comprehensive data to this effect. The RSE suggests there is a case for systematically collecting this data to determine where Scotland is ‘punching above its weight’ and where further investment could improve its global prominence. Collating the examples found in Research Excellence Framework (REF) case studies and City Region Deals could provide a useful starting point.


Research influence can extend beyond academia to take the form of demonstrated economic or societal benefit. For example, we can gauge the ‘real-world’ impact of research by following the number of spin-outs that have emerged from specific institutions and successfully brought products or services to market.


The most defining trait of Scottish education since the Enlightenment is an emphasis on generalism. By virtue of this tradition, as well as its small size, the Scottish research community is well-acquainted across disciplinary divides.


Certain industries are thriving in Scotland; it continues to be a dominant force in offshore wind energy and aspires to become a leading space nation, with Glasgow already producing more satellites than anywhere else in Europe. On both the UK and global stage, Scottish research ‘punches about its weight’ in certain disciplines such as life sciences and pharmaceutical development, informatics, and engineering, drawing in economic benefit as well as commanding academic prestige.


Scotland is also ideally suited to provide living lab conditions for sectors such as renewable energy, agriculture, and rural healthcare.


Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Scottish research is that it is structurally underfunded.


Lying outwith the ‘golden triangle’ that attracts the bulk of funding from public and private sources, the Scottish research community must demonstrate its distinctive value to potential investors, such as its tendency to work more collaboratively.


UK Government should ensure devolved voices are at the table when the science to support policy areas or locations of devolved responsibility is discussed.


The RSE continues to welcome ARIA’s mission, recognising its progress has been slow. Building a more diverse array of research funders focused on different missions will broaden opportunities for researchers and enhance the viability of more speculative research which could yield considerable benefits for society.


RSE submitted a response to UKRI’s recent consultation on the REF 2028 which answers the questions posed in this inquiry as well as others. To this, the RSE would like to add that REF overlooks the unique and valuable role played by research institutes and other Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), despite the fact that universities often cite joint working with research institutes as particularly high-impact case studies in the context of REF submissions.


The RSE welcomed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s assertion that the UK will rejoin Horizon Europe. However, the delayed negotiations have likely jeopardised the UK’s leadership in certain research areas and further alienated some European partners, both of which will take time to fix.

Download this Advice Paper