Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Independent thinking

I posted recently on Scottish independence and what it might mean for students and universities. There’s a parallel question, of course, about research and what impact independence might have on this.  An important disclaimer – I’m not arguing for, or against, independence; just looking at what it might mean.

HESA data on research finance is one way into this question.  Funding for research comes from a number of sources – public, private, charitable, UK, EU, rest of the world, and so on.  The data lets us see how the Scottish picture compares with the rest of the UK.

Research funding makes up a higher proportion of funding for Scottish universities than it does for the rest of the UK – 21% against a UK wide proportion of 16%. Of course, that also reflects, in part, the different UK tuition fee systems – higher tuition fee income for English and Welsh universities inevitably changes the proportions of other types of funding.

HE funding; HESA 2012-13 data
Research funding is typically (although not universally) awarded by a competitive process involving peer review of specific projects.  Comparative performance at this level of detail does tell us something about the research strengths of the different UK nations.

Shares of UK Research Income by nation - HESA 2012-13 data
The highlighted cells show where a nation’s share of total UK funding in that category is higher than its overall national share. The right hand column shows what proportion of overall research funding come from that source.

So we can see that Scotland performs better than its average on the two largest income sources – Research Council (RCUK) funding, and UK charitable income from open competition.  These aren’t small sums of money, either: these two sources accounted for over £2.4 billion in 2012-13.

This is where the impact of independence may be felt. The Research Councils are UK-wide bodies. The large charities are UK-wide. If you redefine UK, then inevitably these funding streams cannot, without other things happening, carry on as they were.   And this is where you get into the unknowable: if Scotland votes yes, then there will be negotiations on a whole raft of things, and the continuation of the Research Councils on a pan-national basis is one of the desiderata of the SNP. Equally, how charities will react is a big question – some charities may have specific clauses that prevent them working across a border, although equally there may be a neat negotiated solution to this.

Another feature can be seen from the data. Both Wales and Northern Ireland have disproportionate shares of UK Government funding. One hypothesis here is that government funding is supporting universities in those nations as a matter of policy, and it would be open to a future Sottish government to do just that. Undoubtedly Scottish universities are one of Scotland’s very valuable assets, and probably have a longevity greater than oil.

The most that I think we can conclude here is that in the event of a yes vote there would be some hard questions about current pan-UK research funding, but it is too soon to say what the effect could be – it’s up for grabs.

Another way to look at this is the question of research culture. Research collaborations between universities are driven by many factors, but an important one is the research question being addressed. Teams working on the same area will know each other, from conferences and journals. They’ll work together if it helps the research question (bringing together expertise, or sharing equipment).

Scottish independence wouldn’t move it further away from the rest of the UK; the question would be whether there were barriers placed in the way of continued collaboration. Unintended consequences of broader negotiations or national policies would be critical here. If Scotland were to join the EU, barriers would be eased. If a good bilateral agreement were reached, then no doubt research collaboration could continue. But research funding may become a pawn in a bigger game.

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