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The Edinburgh International Science Festival today launches its 25th Festival programme today ‘Join our futuristic adventures’.

25th?! Wow.

As usual it’s got amazing stuff happening. The ‘Get Ready for the Future’ programme  sees scientists, technologists, artists, designers and futurists ask what the next 25 years might have in store? All the details are here. The actual festival runs from 23 March – 7 April.

But what does independence mean for the scientific community and for research funding? It’s a question that’s rarely been asked.

Getting ready for the future  is scientist Colin Macilwain, who writes in the journal Nature today:

“Many scientists in Scotland are apprehensive at the prospect of constitutional change. Hugh Pennington, a prominent bacteriologist at the University of Aberdeen, has said that Scotland’s researchers should reject independence in the referendum, lest they lose their right to compete for grants from the UK research councils.

I share the opposing view of Stephen Salter, the wave-power pioneer at the University of Edinburgh, who faced Pennington at a recent Royal Society of Chemistry debate on the independence question. Salter says that an independent Scotland would continue to strongly support research, and likens the ‘no’ argument to the old adage: “Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse.”

Seen from afar, fights for secession can seem parochial and unnecessary. The view from outside is often drenched in superficial sentiment: Canada has its mounted police and low crime; Spain its sunshine and tapas. What on Earth people ask, do those Quebeckers and Catalonians have to complain about?

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Kids examine a mummy at Science Festival in 2010

At least in Scotland’s case, outsiders — from continental Europeans tiring of London’s endless tantrums over the European Union, to US President Barack Obama, whose grandfather learned all about the British Empire in a detention camp in Kenya in the 1950s — have some inkling of what might be awry in Scotland’s 300-year-old union with England.

The university system, together with the armed forces, is one of the few institutions still binding the United Kingdom together. But even at the universities, change is under way. Under the Scotland Act, which restored the Scottish Parliament in 1998, research was one of a handful of powers that were ‘reserved’ in London, whereas ‘the universities’ were devolved. In practice, that means that half of the universities’ research money now comes through the Scottish Government in Edinburgh rather than direct from London — through the university block-grant body, the Scottish Funding Council.

The decision on Scotland’s future will ride not on blood and thunder, but on such prosaic questions as how best to run science and the universities.”

Read the full article in Nature here.

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