'Real threat to research in Scotland’s universities is the Union'

By Bryan MacGregor, Murray Pittock, Joe Goldblatt and Stephen Watson

We are disappointed that some academics opposed to independence base their argument on the "too wee, too poor" template but, at least, they avoid ‘too stupit’, which normally completes the triptych.

For "too wee" we are told that, as a "small country", Scotland would have "little power" in negotiations on research policy. To which the rather obvious response is that it would be more than under the Union.

For "too poor" we are told that the opinion of "a majority of economic experts" is that "the economic prospects for Scotland would be poorer than within the Union". In fact, a Financial Times analysis concludes that an independent Scotland could "expect to start with healthier state finances than the rest of the UK".

We also read another recurring theme from the No campaign - a single research system "has already been rejected by the UK government". Recent revelations that "of course" a currency would be up for negotiation suggest that we treat this claim with an "aye, right" response.

A shared Research Councils’ budget has been supported by Professor Paul Boyle of RCUK, who told MSPs in March that he hoped the cross-border network would continue and that RCUK ‘strongly supported’ this.

It is also claimed that there are "no precedents" for a shared system. There is, of course, the European Research Council but there are examples within the British Isles as the UK and the Republic of Ireland have several joint research council funding arrangements. Why would an independent Scotland be treated differently?

Several key issues are missing from the No argument. First is the current funding environment for research in the UK, which has been a matter of significant concern. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has noted "the cumulative erosion" of the science budget and the impact on university research. CaSE also notes that, for R&D expenditure, "the UK languishes towards the bottom of the G8 and well below the EU-28 average". In an independent Scotland, policies to develop the R&D base would also benefit universities.

In addition to the UK-wide research councils, research is funded, separately by Westminster and the devolved administrations, based on regular assessments of quality. This is under threat in England. One academic commentator noted that "the overall picture looks very bleak". And we are only half way through the public funding cuts which have been agreed by the government and the opposition at Westminster.

The second missing issue is the universally acknowledged negative impact on student recruitment to, and the reputation of, all UK universities of the Westminster immigration policy. The third issue is the invisibility of the Scottish brand. Evidence to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee pointed out that "‘despite its excellence, the Scottish higher education and research sector was not as visible internationally as it could be because it was perceived as being part of the overall UK brand".

In an independent Scotland, with an appropriate immigration policy, we will create our own brand to develop opportunities in research and to attract international students.

Devolution and a sympathetic government have provided short term protection against the financial policies being imposed on universities in England. But likely changes to, or abolition of, the Barnett formula for allocating public funds to Scotland would mean substantial cuts to the Scottish budget. The real threat to research in Scotland’s universities is not independence but continued participation in the union. Independence would not harm the research base; independence would protect it and allow it to thrive. We will be voting Yes in September and we look forward with hope to the opportunities that an independent Scotland would create.

Professor MacGregor, Pittock and Goldblatt and Dr Watson are members of Academic for Yes. A letter they had published in The Herald on this subject (May 6, 2014) was signed by them and 98 other academics.