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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