Research funding in an independent Scotland

There are many scientists and other researchers living in our area, some of whom have raised concerns about the availability of government research funding following independence. As with many other issues, the Better Together campaign has sought to create an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty over this. Here is an outline of our position on this issue. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome (

In Summary:

  •  the difference between the Scottish tax contribution and RCUK spending in Scotland is small compared to savings that will be made in other areas such as defence
  • Funding levels per institution are actually similar in Scotland to those in the rest of the UK, it’s just that there are more institutions here
  • Because of its relative importance any independent Scottish government would prioritise research
  • If rUK rejects a common research area it would lose the benefits of its previous investments, and the Scottish research capacity, which is supported by the Scottish government and the excellence of our universities
  • There are significant disadvantages with a No vote, resulting from UK immigration policy and the possibility of exiting the EU

As you probably know the Scottish government propose the retention of a Common Research Area, with a fair, negotiated funding arrangement. I think this would have advantages for both parties. However, I’d like to address the scenario in which the UK rejects such an arrangement and an independent Scottish government creates funding bodies to fulfil the roles of the UK research councils.

Taking the figures in a recent letter to the press signed by several senior Scottish biologists who oppose independence:

“Scottish institutions have done extremely well when competing for UK Research Council grants; for example in 2012-13 they won £257M (13.1%) of the funding available – a remarkable achievement for a country with just 8.4% of the UK population”

The relevant comparisons are not with population but with revenue contributed and with the relative numbers of researchers and institutions. In that year Scotland contributed 9.1% of UK revenue (table 4.6 of ). This gives a 4% difference between the Scottish contribution and the funding that was won: approximately £79m.

However the figure above includes only RCUK spending on studentships, grants and fellowships. It does not include RCUK spending on infrastructure, of which Scotland gets a disproportionately low and declining share. If you take all RCUK spending into account, the Scottish share is around 11%, still slightly above its revenue contribution but representing a funding gap of only around £22m in 2012. This looks rather different from the $257m figure advertised in the quote above. The equivalent funding gaps for previous years were: 
 £15m (2011), £58m (2010) and £39m (2009).

To put this in context, the Scottish contribution to the UK defence budget was over £3bn in 2012/13 (table 5.1 in A recent Royal United Services Institute report proposed an independent Scotland should spend a similar proportion of its GDP on defence to Denmark and Norway, which would be between £1.5 and 1.8bn, an annual saving of up to £1.5 billion over our current contribution. ( The current Scottish government propose a generous £2.5bn annual defence spend, which would save £500m per year. Savings in this single policy area dwarf the current, modest shortfall in research funding.

I’ll turn now to our “remarkable achievement” in winning the funding levels that we do.  The figures above relate RCUK spending to share of population, giving the impression that Scottish research is better funded than the rest of the UK. However, there are more Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Scotland compared to rUK: 19/160 (11.9%) for an 8.2% share of population.

The total research council spend in Scotland (including PhDs and research institutes) was £307 million in 2012, compared to £2562m in rUK. This works out at £16.2m per Scottish HEI and £18.2m per rUK HEI. On these figures, Scottish HEIs are slightly less well funded than rUK HEIs.

So research is funded pretty much equally in Scotland and rUK, there’s just more of it in Scotland.  In consequence, it’s a more important part of the economy than it is in the rest of UK.

As we see with the example of defence, government spending is a question of priorities. Given the contribution of research to the economy in terms of employment and income, it makes sense for a rational government to support the sector proportionately to its size. An independent Scottish government would have different priorities – and one of these would be to support a critical sector of the economy.

The SNP’s white paper and its record make it clear that a government in which they are influential would prioritise science. Labour party policy in Scotland is also notably pro-science.

The analysis above also supports the case that the rUK government would do well to consider the continuation of the common research area. Doing otherwise might endanger the benefits of current investments, particularly in certain areas. This investment is supported extensively by the Scottish Government, by highly-trained staff and by the international reputation of Scottish universities in attracting fee-paying overseas students. And we produce high quality work. Scotland has 5 out of its 16 HEIs (33%) in the top 200 of the Times rankings, compared with 31/141 (22%) for rUK.

For these reasons and others, Professor Paul Boyle, the “International Champion” of Research Councils UK, expressed strong support for the continuation of a common research area in the event of a Yes.

Charity funders also make use of Scotland’s research capacity (and indeed raise revenue here). Why should they decide not to engage with the Scottish scientific community and benefit from the support described above, simply because the people have decided that reserved matters such as defence and welfare policy should be decided by Holyrood? As a spokesperson for Cancer Research UK said recently:

"As we fund research in a number of Scottish Universities and there is an enormous amount of public support for our work, Scotland is an integral part of our charitable activities. It is in everyone's interest to see this research continue, regardless of the referendum outcome”

There are reasons to be concerned about the consequences of a No vote for Scottish academia. One is the impact of the UK government’s immigration policy, which is likely to get worse given the rise of UKIP. Immigration restrictions have already led to a marked decline in overseas student numbers, particularly from India. This was discussed in some detail by Professor Peter Downes of Universities Scotland and others at the parliamentary hearing mentioned above:

“There is no doubt that the presentation of a rather unwelcoming prospect has already damaged our reputation”.

Finally with UKIP having won more votes than any other party across the UK at the European elections, and the Conservatives committed to an in-out referendum, there is a real prospect that we could end up outside the EU if there is a No vote. This would drastically affect the free movement of research talent and undermine the position of a large group of researchers from elsewhere in Europe.