Theory of Devolution

Theory of Devolution

Dr Catherine Ball looks ahead to science and research in an independent Scotland

The Biologist Vol 61(2) p34-35

The 18th of September 2014 will be no ordinary day. Millions of Scots will take to the polls to answer the question of whether Scotland should be an independent country. Of the many and varied ramifications of a 'yes' vote, the effect on the science community hasn't been a key priority. Yet the implications for the economy, skills and research could be far reaching.

The UK has a thriving science base, with 31 institutions in the world's top 200 universities, five of which are located in Scotland. According to research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the UK is ranked second only to the US in terms of world class research[1]. Further, the UK was ranked third globally for innovation in 2013[2]. All parties are in agreement that this situation should continue if Scotland becomes independent; how to ensure it happens is where differences emerge.

At the moment, teaching in Scottish universities is devolved and provided for by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), while the research base is funded by the seven UK Research Councils (RCUK) and major research charities, most notably the Wellcome Trust. In 2012-13 Scottish higher education institutions secured £257m of RCUK funding – 13% of the UK total and a significantly higher proportion when compared with Scotland's 8% share of the UK population[3]. With independence, the Scottish National Party (SNP) envisages that this scenario would continue via a shared research area.

The Holyrood Government intends to negotiate with the Westminster Government for a fair funding formula for Scotland's contribution, based on more than simply population share. The precise nature of this hasn't been disclosed. BIS, however, is wary of this situation and has indicated that access to RCUK funds couldn't be guaranteed for researchers in an independent Scotland. Academics Better Together has indicated that a single funding system could become increasingly difficult to operate over time, as different countries are likely to develop different political and economic priorities.

The SNP states that a shared, RCUK-funded research area would enable Scottish interests to be better and more consistently reflected in the identification of Research Council priorities. However, some have expressed concern that this may constitute erosion of the Haldane principle, which states that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians.

Collaborative research and the sharing of facilities feature heavily in the UK Government's vision for the future of science in the UK as a whole. Scotland has a number of centres of scientific excellence that are used by research teams from across the UK as well as overseas. Negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster may be required in the event of independence to ensure facilities across the border remain readily accessible, which will be critical for researcher mobility and institutional collaboration.

As well as funding from RCUK, Scottish researchers gain a large amount of funding from medical research charities. UK charitable organisations invest approximately £1.1bn in UK research per annum, 13% of which was spent on research in Scotland[4]. The White Paper suggests this funding will remain unchanged in an independent nation.

Read all about it

Within the Scottish National Party's (SNP) White Paper, 'Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland', lies an outline of how R&D and higher education might proceed in an independent nation.

Prior to this publication, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also addressed these issues in a document on science and research as part of the Government's suite of Scotland analysis papers.

In response to the SNP White Paper, the Better Together campaign also disseminated a series of reports, including one that was authored by Academics Better Together, which looked at the future of Scotland's universities.

However, it has been highlighted that charities could face regulatory and constitutional challenges when attempting to fund research in a separate Scotland. The Wellcome Trust in particular has noted that its future commitments, and the eligibility of Scottish institutions for its support, will need to be reviewed. Broader concerns have also been expressed by charities such as the impact that separation would have on UK-wide clinical trials.

In certain areas of science, particularly the biosciences, regulatory bodies and licensing frameworks are crucial. Many of these act under legislation set by the UK Government, such as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the Human Tissue Authority and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The debate is open as to whether equivalent organisations would need to be established in Scotland. Arrangements would also need to be made for the licensing of animal research in an independent Scotland and how to implement EU directives on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.

The free degrees

The SNP has also indicated a 'business as usual' approach in terms of Scottish students' access to free university education. Currently, neither Scottish nor EU citizens pay tuition fees in Scotland, unlike students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. A number of groups have pointed out that if Scotland leaves the UK and joins the EU as a separate state, then, under EU law, it could be legally obliged to provide university education free to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well. However, the Scottish Government suggests that because so many English students might come across the border, this will persuade the European Court that the normal rules shouldn't apply to Scotland.

These questions aside, in the event of a 'yes' vote, Scotland won't become a separate country immediately. Instead, there will be an 18-month transitional period during which logistics will be finalised and negotiations will begin in earnest. Perhaps this would allow a number of these issues to be addressed and arrangements finalised. However, only time will tell just how real these speculations will be.

Dr Catherine Ball works between the Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society as a science policy officer. She largely focuses on issues across biology and chemistry, including antimicrobial resistance, equality and diversity in science, drug discovery and science policy in Scotland.


1. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2011.

2. Global Innovation Index 2013

3. Research Councils UK

4. Academics Better Together Excelling Together: The future of Scotland's universities 2014.