Scientists for Indy


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?


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.


Comments (6)

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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    “Hugh Pennington, a prominent bacteriologist at the University of Aberdeen”

    Whoops, Colin appears to have misspelt “prominent unionist” there.

  2. vronsky says:

    Does anyone remember the ‘scientists’ letter’ to the Scottish newspapers in April 2007? Scottish independence would harm research in Scottish universities, they said. There were 62 signatories to the letter and if you investigate who they are you will pray that their fears are well founded. Almost all of them were in Big Pharma or GM crops*. I think there was one mathematician – they must have ambushed the poor bugger after a long night at the bar. I found out a lot more about these shady characters and wrote it all down, but nobody would ever publish it. Truth is calumny nowadays. Still, it’s disappointing to find that our scientists are just like our journalists: speak only the permissable. Galileo must be really glad he’s dead.

    *The SNP opposes GM crops, recklessly setting itself against huge American corporations.

  3. Mloclam says:

    I like Hugh Pennington. He’s probably correct in this regard – that there would be disruption of science funding, as a result of independence. That said, it is the UK govt that has made actual cuts to research council funding, which as a scientist should be a more interesting figure than a vague fear of the funding shortfall not being made up.

    Hugh Pennington is also quite an elderly man now, long retired, and is reacting in a way fairly typical of his age group to change being championed by people younger than he.

  4. Morag says:

    If Pennington is against it, I’m for it. Unpleasant self-publicising non-expert.

    In my area of science, animal health, I am petrified of a no vote. The veterinary surveillance system in England is being destroyed by Westminster, and England is heading to become an absolute pest-house. However, this is a devolved issue, and the Scottish government is supporting animal health. If we get a no vote, I expect us to be dragged down to England’s level on this as in so much else.

    And thanks to the new rules on NI contributions, I can’t even retire, as I had previously believed I could. Got to go on working even if they eliminate my job….

  5. Mark Coburn says:

    Good Post Morag.

    Forgive me for chucking my tuppence worth in here as I’m not really qualified to comment on this (then again, neither are the majority). However, it slightly irritates me when men like Pennington get on their high horses on matters like these. I may be a bit naive here but I think my assumption that our attitude towards education here in Scotland is far more healthy than south of the border. Whether that transmits into funding for universities post-independence is anyone’s guess. (I would suspect so). But given the slash and burn approach by successive Westminster governments who can realistically say that funding will remain the same anyway? Just as there are folk who’ll have their benefits cut (& Bedroom tax anyone?) that same meat cleaver will be admonished elsewhere.

    1. Mark Coburn says:

      erratum corrige: substitute admonished with administered.

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