By Sally Burn, PhD
What do the following have in common: John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander Fleming, and James Watt? Well, apart from being scientists or engineers who have had profound effects on your daily life (by virtue of inventing the television, telephone, penicillin, and modern steam engine respectively), they are also Scottish. Scotland, if you are not familiar with it, is a small country within the United Kingdom (UK) that is home to just over five million people (or around 8% of the UK’s total 64 million inhabitants). Despite its small size, it is an incredibly well accomplished and well-funded nation in the fields of science and engineering – it is also the country that produced Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from a somatic cell. According to the Scottish government’s website, Scottish research is cited by scientists from other countries more often than that of any other country, when citations are compared relative to Gross Domestic Product. I completed my MSc, PhD and first postdoc in Scotland, so I have witnessed firsthand the excellent facilities and high quality research this little powerhouse has to offer.
Scotland is an all-round great place to live and be a scientist. However, not everyone is happy. To condense down an awful lot of history, let’s just say that there was a lot of bloody fighting from medieval times through to the early 1700s during which England and Scotland tussled over who owned Scotland. In 1707 Scotland entered the union to become part of the-then Kingdom of Great Britain (the forerunner of the UK), and was governed entirely from London until 1999 when limited self-government was permitted. But this is not enough for many Scots, who now want complete independence from the UK (which also includes England, Wales, and Northern Ireland). In theory, Scotland would become an independent country, with a small population but amazing science capabilities… or would it? The majority of my Scottish or Scotland-based science contacts seem to think otherwise. They envision major drains on funding and personnel, not helped by a predicted economic nightmare. Supporters of independence, however, are confident that separation from the UK will be a positive move and that there is no reason for the existing excellence in science to falter.
Residents of Scotland will cast their vote on independence on September 18th. Scizzle asked four Scottish-based scientists how they will be voting and what independence will, in their minds, mean for Scottish science. Some respondents have chosen to remain anonymous as the subject is sensitive and they currently work in Scotland. It should also be noted that the views expressed are their own and do not reflect those of their employers.
NO TO INDEPENDENCE – Anon, Edinburgh-based postdoctoral researcher
As the Scottish referendum looms, ‘No’ campaign supporters are increasingly being labelled as being ‘negative’ or ‘scaremongerers’, tainting the ideal of Scottish independence. But what I fear the Yes campaigners are missing is that we are already living the dream – in a country recovering from financial crisis, our children still go to university without paying fees and we can all see a doctor and receive prescription drugs free of charge. Both of these benefits do not extend to the English taxpayer and I can’t help but think these benefits in Scotland are funded – at least in part – by the British taxpayer. The same goes for science – proportionally, we receive more public funding per capita than the rest of the UK.
While several prominent scientists have come out publically to state their fears for the future security of Scottish science funding in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, the story behind closed doors is more worrying; rumours of capital grants already being denied to Scottish institutions alongside new group leaders being called in for discussions about future funding ‘issues’.
The people of Scotland are being asked to make what is for many an emotional decision. But for those of us whose families are dependent on jobs in the science and engineering sectors, the luxury of an emotional decision simply is not there. If Scotland gains independence my husband will be relocated to England. As a female postdoc with young children, I don’t fancy my chances at gaining a new position if competition increases due to fewer jobs/less funding. I used to believe it was entirely possible to ‘have it all’ – a fulfilling family life and an exciting career as a postdoc. Despite have a baby, I’m no stranger to nights in the lab because science is my passion and I’m more than willing to sacrifice sleep to the cause. But in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, my family will most likely have to leave our home and start over again. Science is a luxury, and I’ve no doubt many of us will fall victim to a mass ‘cull’. So on September 18th, I won’t be voting ‘No thanks’, I’ll be voting ‘Please, No’.
NO TO INDEPENDENCE – Peter Hohenstein, Edinburgh-based principal investigator
It’s not rocket science. Good research needs three things: good people, good institutes and good money. The quality of an institute comes down to the people that work there and the amount of money they can spend. Good people will come to good institutes with good funding. So in the end it’s only about the money. And that’s where the problem is.
The numbers are not new, Scotland gets 13% of Research Council money (through being good) for 8% of the UK population. This is hundreds of millions of pounds. The Yes campaign thinks there will be a shared RC structure between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK), but forgets to ask the question ‘why would they?’. Why would rUK give research funding to a country that just decided to leave them, let alone more than they would be able to fund themselves? There are enough good scientists in England and Wales to spend the money on. Wellcome Trust have not made clear yet what their position on an independent Scotland will be. Other big charities neither, but again, why would they spend their money in another country? Cancer Research UK doesn’t spend its money in Belgium or Iceland, why would they spend it in Scotland if the Scots themselves decide to leave? Scottish charities will need a long time to get the same brand recognition (and thereby income) as the UK version have at the moment to fill this gap, if that ever happens (and again, also with charities Scotland wins a bigger portion of funding than based on population). Nobody knows at the moment if and when an independent Scotland could get into the EU. What does that mean for EU funding? Financially research in Scotland can only be worse off. Independence would give an extra hole in the budget of £6billion that needs to be filled somehow regardless of this, so an independent Scottish government will not be able to compensate. If Scotland eventually gets in the EU they will have to drop the ‘English students only’ tuition fee policy, giving an extra £150million gap in the science and education budget. I don’t think anybody outside the Yes campaign seriously believes an independent Scotland will be able to keep up the science funding levels. The sums simply don’t add up.
Right now the situation is made worse due the uncertainty about what is going to happen. Nobody is at the moment able to plan ahead in case there is a ‘Yes’ vote. And once it’s there, there are only 18 months to get things sorted. This is madness. The simplest grant application expects you to plan ahead longer in advance, and right now the whole of research funding in general is in limbo and would have 18 months to sort things out. I don’t see another possibility than a complete mess in the way universities and institutes will function and can be managed for several years to come for lack of planning opportunities.
Scotland will lose its attraction for good scientists to come to and stay in. 13 years ago I came to the UK, but since then I stayed in Scotland. I stayed because I love Scotland, and because I could do good science here with good funding. I don’t think an independent Scotland will have a comparable attraction to people as the UK as a whole has. Especially if a transition to an independent funding system turns out as messy as I fear – fewer good people will come to Scotland, more good people will leave Scotland. Scientists are used to following the funding streams, all over the world if needed. A large number of scientists are on temporary contracts anyhow, they’re expected to move around every few years for a big part of their career. Why would they come to or stay in Scotland if the funding is a mess and going down? Science in Scotland could all too easily slip into a negative spiral of losing good people and funding. It won’t take long to lose everything the country has worked on for three centuries, it will take much longer (if ever at all) to get it back.
As a non-Brit myself I don’t have any emotional feelings against or in favour of Scottish Independence. I would be the first to agree ‘No’ voters are for a big part driven by fear, as well as thinking ‘Yes’ voters are guilty of day-dreaming. Yes, Scotland has shown to bring forth great research and great scientists. But why would Scotland decide to risk the financial foundations of its science? John Logie Baird was a Scot, but he did his ground-breaking work on the development of the television in Hastings in the south of England. Alexander Bell was from Edinburgh, but was trained and worked in London (before moving to Canada). The Scot Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but it took British funding from the Medical Research Council (as well as the German Jewish refugee Ernst Chain and Australian Howard Florey working in Oxford, England) to bring out its potential. James Watt was born near the Firth of Clyde but to make his steam engine a commercial success he had to partner up with Birmingham (England)-born Matthew Boulton. Science transcends borders, funding much less so. Scots can be brilliant, but they have always worked in the context of the wider UK, and why wouldn’t they? And it goes both ways, England-born and trained Peter Higgs won the Nobel Prize for work he did (until his retirement very recently) at the University of Edinburgh.
Some might say an immigrant in Scotland like me should not voice an opinion on Scottish Independence. I think every scientist in Scotland should (especially since the universities don’t), wherever they are originally from and whatever their opinion is. In the case of a ‘Yes’ vote Scottish science might eventually catch up again, but science in the rest of the world would have steamed ahead while we are spending time, energy and money on setting up a new scientific (funding) system. Are nationalist emotions important enough to make our own lives unnecessary difficult? For me that’s not rocket science…
YES TO INDEPENDENCE – Keith Erskine, Edinburgh-based laboratory technician
If Scotland became independent, it would need to grow its economy and invest in industry, and obviously universities and other scientific bodies would be at the heart of this. Scotland has a good history of innovation, discovery and invention, and this would be more necessary than ever before, if we were independent.
Throughout the debates and arguments over the pros and cons of independence, both sides of the debate seem to paint a picture where the amount of money in the economy and in individual’s pockets appears to be much the same as it is now, regardless of which way the referendum goes – the main difference seems to be more about how money is spent and who decides this. Currently, and rightly in my opinion, the UK government has to put the needs of the majority of its people first and because Scotland is so much smaller than England in terms of population, many decisions which have a direct impact on Scotland and Scottish people are not being made by people whose main priority is what is best for Scotland. This would not be the case in an independent Scotland, and this could only ever be beneficial in a situation where an industry or field which was central or important for the future of the country was in need of funding or help from the government.
I actually think that the psychological boost of a new found optimism and positivity from the recreation of an independent country could inspire millions both domestically and abroad to work on the growth and development of science and technology. There would be a need to build and grow, and this would surely attract the minds and money of the world of science, to be a part of that.
All I see is new opportunity if the vote is yes, and I am excited about the possibility of being there to witness it happening. I find the thought inspiring and exciting, and I hope that it can be the legacy of my generation in the history of Scotland.
NO TO INDEPENDENCE – Anon, Dundee-based scientist
Scotland currently produces outstanding research and attracts a disproportionately large share of science funding. Our current membership of the UK gives us access to generous funding from UK research councils and from the EU. It also makes it easy for groups across the UK to collaborate and share skills, expensive equipment, and access world-class facilities. This is central to any developed economy, and something that Scotland should be proud of.
Why would we want to change this enviable position?
Pro-independence campaigners argue that Westminster will cut budgets. However, despite the financial crisis, funding of the life sciences has been well protected compared with many other areas. In contrast, what is promised on independence is vague. The Scottish Government has asserted that the UK research councils will continue funding Scottish research. Not only is this contradictory to the argument for leaving the UK, it seems wildly optimistic to expect the UK to continue funding a foreign country.
The lack of planning for post-independence funding is shocking. What happens if, in fact, the UK does not intend to fund research in an independent Scotland? We can’t fall back on EU funding and facilities because we won’t be part of the EU for several years at least. Even a short gap in funding would severely damage research here; researchers need money to continue their work and to eat. If the money dries up for even a matter of months, many people would need to leave to find other jobs. Once people have left, it is virtually impossible to reassemble teams and expertise that have been carefully built over decades.
Indeed, what happens if the UK does intend to fund research in an independent Scotland? Although we may continue to receive money, we would lose any political say in how the Westminster government decides science-funding policy. This would put us in a very precarious and dependent position; precisely the opposite of what independence is supposed to achieve.
Collaboration and sharing is fundamental to science. Why should we rip up the fabric of UK research and build unnecessary barriers in an unfunded, poorly planned future?