In the Chamber: 7th November – Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence
7 November 2018

I, too, welcome Richard Lochhead to his post and thank him for agreeing to meet me at very early doors to discuss the University of the Highlands and Islands.
No Friday evening pub quiz is complete without questions about famous Scottish scientists and their inventions.
All of us in the chamber today know the easy answers: we know that John Logie Baird invented the television, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
However, what happens if we move to the more challenging level? What about Williamina Fleming, John Napier and Professor John Macleod?
I do not see any hands raised, so I assume that ignorance is bliss.
The answers are that they invented or discovered the designation system for stars, log tables and insulin, respectively.
We heard earlier, and I agree, that Scotland has a proud record of scientific excellence and that international collaboration has been a key factor.
Let me give one example from history. Professor John Macleod, whom I mentioned, was an Aberdonian who emigrated to North America and shared the 1923 Nobel prize for medicine with a Canadian, Frederick Banting, for the discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto in 1921-22.
Prior to that discovery, type 1 diabetes was a life-threatening condition; I speak as the convener of the cross-party group on diabetes.
I warmly welcome the Scottish Government’s debate and support the motion in Richard Lochhead’s name.
In the brief time that I have, I will focus my remarks on the positive note that the EU has played in our universities over the past 45 years through two main areas.
The first is the critically important access to research collaborations across the EU and beyond, facilitating what is in the jargon called curiosity-driven research and made easy by freedom of movement for our researchers and scientists.
The second is the access to major research funding through the various framework funding models that we have heard about from other speakers.
We have heard a lot about the flagship horizon 2020 programme and I agree that it has been crucial in accelerating cutting-edge science across our university sector and beyond.
However, on a note of caution, I read in The Guardian recently that there has been
“a downturn in both UK participation in, and funding from, the project.”
Across the board, there have been concerns from university vice-chancellors that UK projects are losing out, even before Brexit has taken place.
I make it clear that Scotland and the UK do extremely well out of the current system, but there are concerns about the situation since the Brexit vote.
Let me give some examples.
In 2017, the proportion of UK participation in horizon 2020 was 15 per cent of the total, with just under a 16 per cent share of the funding.
However, the Universities UK figures show that, this year, UK participation fell to 12 per cent and UK funding fell to 13 per cent.
Do not take my word for it; Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK said:
“It highlights the urgent need for clarity on the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020 beyond Brexit and, while the UK is still a member of the EU, the need to communicate that the UK universities and researchers are still eligible to participate and apply for funding through EU research and innovation programmes.”
There has been another worrying development.
The Guardian carried out a confidential survey of the Russell group universities, which, as members will know, include the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow.
It found evidence of discrimination against UK researchers, with some such researchers being asked to leave EU-funded projects.
In one case that was cited by The Guardian, an EU project officer recommended that a lead investigator drop all UK partners from a consortium because Britain’s share of the funding was not guaranteed.
Another key aspect is freedom of movement, which is fundamental to the EU.
I believe that Scotland has benefited from the ability to attract world-leading scientists to embark on global research projects because of the UK’s membership of the EU.
It has also given our early career researchers the opportunity to travel freely across the EU, to develop new ideas and products with their peers and to bring that knowledge back to Scotland.
I think that it was Tavish Scott who mentioned the letter from leading academics across Scotland that was published The Sunday Times.
They said:
“We cannot and must not allow Scotland and the UK to lose the leading role they have in these networks, as it is not easily replaced.
“Unfortunately, we are already seeing a loss of leadership in research collaboration since the Brexit vote.”
It is useful to look at the total funding that Scotland received from framework programme 7, which is the programme that preceded horizon 2020.
It received €729.5 million, including €3 million for marine renewables research at the UHI in my region.
Such projects make a real difference to innovation across the region.
They often build on the platform of major structural fund investment over the past three decades, which has made such a difference to my region’s economy.
There were plans to develop in key sectors, such as renewables and the health sciences, in the remainder of the horizon 2020 programme and as part of the future horizon Europe activity, but those plans have been limited as a result of Brexit.
Time is against me, so I will make a final key point.
We probably need the predictive powers of the Brahan seer to be able to identify the next steps in the Brexit process.
The challenge for Scotland in the future is twofold.
We need to maintain the spend on research and use every technique to secure the best and brightest talent from across Europe and beyond.
Brexit casts a dark shadow, but by using our history of innovation and scientific endeavour, we will continue to create new knowledge for generations yet unborn.