Would Scottish Independence be Good for English Science?

On Monday the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, visited Edinburgh where he took in, among other things, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and was treated to an explanation of how adaptive optics work. There being less than a year to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the visit was always likely to generate political discussion and this turned out to be the case.

According to a Guardian piece

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to Willetts) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for English science.

For what it’s worth, I am a complete agnostic about Scottish independence – I really think its for the Scots to decide – but I don’t think it would benefit the rest of the UK from the point of view of science funding. I think it’s much more likely that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom then the part of the science budget it currently receives would be cancelled rather than redistributed, which would leave us no better off at all.

4 Responses to “Would Scottish Independence be Good for English Science?”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    If there were a divorce between Scotland and England, presumably England would get custody of Newtonian mechanics while Scotland would keep Maxwell’s equations.

  2. Andrew Liddle Says:

    The possible loss of science funding would be trivial compared to the fact that the Scottish universities would become obliged to educate all accepted UK national undergraduates for free and hence would be deluged with applications. Presently Scottish and EU students pay no fees, while what we currently seem to call RUK (rest-of-UK) students are charged on the same basis as in their home nation, e.g. 9000 pounds per year for English students. This does not violate EU laws on equality-of-opportunity as RUK is not a separate EU country at present, but would do after independence. We’d only be saved if the EU forbade admission to the independent Scotland (which would be terrible for other reasons), or if England, Wales and Northern Ireland withdrew from the EU. Either of which is quite plausible of course.

    On the other hand, an independent Scottish government might well decide that a higher per capita investment in science was reasonable; the UK languishes by international standards on this measure while the Scottish position inferred from these numbers is pretty good. Assuming we do believe in our arguments on the value of investment in science.

    Anyway, it isn’t really about the money …


  3. Predicting how things would develop financially after Scottish independence is difficult.

    I’m not sure the effects of the change in science funding on science directly would be particularly great in either Scotland or in the residual United Kingdom (Greater England? Little Britain?), even though Scotland does well at present in bidding for science funding from United Kingdom funding bodies (primarily the research councils). It is this difference in science funding per capita between England and Scotland that is important here. (Scottish independence would mean Scottish science funding would come from Scottish tax revenues directly, rather than from general United Kingdom taxation that includes Scottish taxes.)

    I suspect the biggest effects on science funding would be the broad public finance issues. These are the ending of the current funding system using the Barnett formula (which gives significantly more
    funding to Scotland per capita than to England at present), and receipts from the taxation of oil and gas. One of these would make Scotland poorer than at present, and the other would make it considerably richer.

    Scotland has only 8% of the population of the United Kingdom, so it is difficult to see the loss of Scotland having a major effect on English science funding.

    As for what I think, Scotland has the opportunity to build a new country with meritocratic opportunities for all, rather than the old-fashioned system we have in the United Kingdom where opportunities are determined to some extent by which school an individual attended and the consequent social connections built up from school and university.

  4. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Philip,

    The current legal position is that whatever deal is offered to local students must be offered to all students of other EU countries. As Scotland does not charge fees to its home-based students, the same is true for EU students who come to Scotland **and who meet entrance requirements**; further those entrance requirements must not favour Scottish students versus EU ones. We have quite a large existing population of EU students, particularly from Eastern Europe, on this basis, but not at a level where it is felt to substantially restrict opportunities for Scottish students and hence typically felt to be a good thing as part of the internationalisation of education, hopefully with similar number of Scottish students travelling to other countries for their studies.

    The same regulation applies throughout the EU, e.g. a German University must treat French students on the same basis as its own in terms of fees and admissions. Increasing numbers of English students are choosing to study in places like the Netherlands because university fees are much less there than in England (and courses are often taught in English).

    In England students are charged 9000 pounds per year (by most universities) and so EU students are charged that same amount. Wales and Northern Ireland have slightly different policies, but for this purpose are very similar. So it is much more expensive for EU students to come to those places to study than it is to Scotland.

    At the moment, the EU policy does not apply to students moving amongst the UK nations as they do not qualify as separate EU countries and hence are not covered by legislation. Were Scotland to become independent but manage to remain within the EU, it would remain bound by these EU-level requirements which are not matters of national choice.

    As England has ten times the population of Scotland, the potentially huge number of applications from students hoping to avoid paying 9000 pounds per year would be likely to substantially displace Scottish students, with the Scottish taxpayer instead paying for the education of students from throughout the UK.

    Hope this clarifies. It’s a complicated business and very unique to the UK because of the combination of very high fee levels in England and highly-differentiated fee policies within the constituent nations.

    all best,


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