Research policy and Scottish independence: two bald men fighting over a comb?

Old College, Edinburgh University (from www.geograph.org.uk)

Old College, Edinburgh University (from http://www.geograph.org.uk)

As the date for Scotland’s referendum draws nearer, so the battlefields become wider, and the two sides are now debating the future of research funding. The higher education researcher Jim Gallacher has published his view that academic research is more strongly supported within the Union than it would be in an independent Scotland. For the ‘Yes’ camp, Bryan MacGregor has argued that independence will allow Scottish institutions to develop closer business relations and pursue distinctively Scottish priorities.

Like much of the referendum debate, this sounds like two parties with completely opposing views of the world. But a closer look at the argument suggests to me that there isn’t much prospect of significant changes in the funding of university research, regardless of the outcome on 18 September.

Much public spending on university research is already decided in Scotland. The Scottish Funding Council allocates research funding through the block grant mechanism (next year’s total will be just shy of £300 bn). The allocation within Scotland is based on a formula that takes into account the outcomes of the Research Evaluation Framework (REF), a UK-wide process that the Scottish sector chooses to – but does not have to – support.

Next, the Scottish Government and its agencies are significant contractors. Of course, the Government could increase or reduce its allocation to SFC after independence, but this is a devolved decision that is made in Scotland.

Research policy is, though, an area of shared sovereignty, with part being allocated at UK level. Most of this is channelled through the Research Councils, and Scottish universities are relatively successful at bidding competitively for these funds. Currently, the Scottish Government says that it would like to see the Research Councils continue on a UK basis; obviously, this means negotiating with the rest of the UK, but it hardly suggests radical change. Devolved administrations already contribute to decisions on RC priorities, and the Scottish Government is essentially suggesting that this stays unchanged.

Then there is the element of research funding that is passed on to the European Commission. The EC funds research through the European Research Council, the European Framework Programmes, and through specific programmes administered by its departments and agencies. Again, Scottish universities do reasonably well in the competitive process.

In the event of a ‘Yes’ majority next month, then Scotland will become the 29th member state and will therefore join the European research schemes (I think we can entirely discount suggestions that Scotland will be required to join the queue of candidate states). It will have to pay money into the shared pot, and it will be represented in the decision-making process, though as a small member state its voice will not be a loud one. So this does mark a change, but I see it as a relatively minor one.

Finally, other bodies also fund academic research. This includes charities and corporations, the largest of which – such as big pharma or the energy industry – have a very questionable influence on higher education institutions. No one really knows how this will change if there is a ‘Yes’, but my own guess is that the factors that already make Scottish researchers attractive or unattractive to these funders will continue to determine where the funding goes. However, no one can pretend that the decisions of big pharma or the oil giants are based on ‘distinctive Scottish priorities’.

Overall, then, the machinery of academic research should largely rumble on as before, uninfluenced by the referendum outcome. There is, though, one further factor, which would be on my ‘worry list’ if I were running a Scottish university. Currently, Scottish institutions do very well from recruiting students from the rest of the UK, and charging them a sizeable fee. When Scotland becomes a separate member of the EU, that will stop, removing a very significant source of income from the sector, but that is a separate issue.

Declaration of interest: Jim Gallacher is a friend and he holds an honorary post at the University of Stirling – as do I

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H G Wells beside the sea

 

Wells outside Spade House

Wells outside Spade House

 
H.G. Wells is one of those writers everyone has heard of. Sixty years after he died, Steven Spielberg filmed his novel War of the Worlds, a book that famously caused uproar when adapted for the radio. Wells was also a highly political animal, with wide-ranging interests that ranged from tackling inequality to developing world government.

In short, he was an interesting guy with maverick views, and I was chuffed when an old friend helped organise an exhibition in Sandgate, Kent, where Wells lived from 1898 to 1909. He controlled the design of his new house, favouring a functional approach with clean lines and simple features, in deliberate opposition to what he saw as the fussy, cluttered and unhygienic homes of the Victorian bourgeoisie.

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The War of the Words exhibition gives due attention to Wells’ life, loves, ideas, and connections. His modernist approach to Spade House was, it seemed, very much of a piece with his political as well as his aesthetic views. This included his view of education as a means of promoting equality and efficiency, while also ensuring ‘the training of all men and women for free co-operation and happy service in the common life of the State’.

Wells also shared the wider Fabian interest in labour colonies, but in terms of his wider view of education rather than as a form of punishment. Writing in 1903, he advocated ‘a general conscription and a period of public service for everyone’, mainly as a means of promoting ‘a sense of civic obligation’, with ‘every class in the community having a practical knowledge of what labour means’. This seems to me a defensible view of a universal labour service, and it is also one that Wells continued to advocate.

Less admirably, he also supported a Private Members’ Bill introduced in the House of Commons in 1912, called ‘the Feeble-Minded Bill’, which called for the introduction of compulsory labour colonies for ‘mental defectives’. Wells was interested in eugenic thought, and it may be that he thought – as did others – that labour colonies were a good way of preventing the ‘feeble-minded’ from breeding. In fairness, though, I should add that as John Partington has shown, he repeatedly made it clear that his ideas were not racially based, and he was consistently opposed to racial prejudice of any kind.

By the time he lived in Sandgate, Wells was a respected man of letters who counted Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw and Rebecca West among his many literary visitors. He also befriended Sir Edward Sassoon, describing dinner houses at the Liberal MP’s nearby home, with distinguished guests such as Winston Churchill, as ‘as unbracing mentally, and as pleasant as going to a flower show and seeing what space and care can do with favoured strains of some familiar species’.

The exhibition, reasonably enough, doesn’t focus on Wells’ ideas on labour colonies and eugenics, but I did learn plenty about the context in which he wrote about these issues. In a quirky footnote to Wells’ time in Sandgate, Spade House was later the birthplace of the great comic actor Hattie Jacques.

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