Better Together

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Scottish Science, UK Funding

Scottish universities are among the best in the world – regularly ranking highly in world league tables on a range of measures. We have a long and proud history of research, innovation and discovery. Every day Scottish inventions touch the lives of people across the world.

Scots rightly take enormous pride in our history of invention and discovery and the contribution our inventions continue to make to the world.

For hundreds of years Scottish researchers have worked collaboratively with leading researchers from across the whole of the United Kingdom. This two-way, cross-border collaboration has been absolutely fundamental to Scotland and the rest of the UK’s success for centuries. It is not just Scotland’s long and proud history of research that Scots are proud of, but we should be proud too of the many great discoveries of recent years too, such as Dolly the sheep and the Higgs boson.

To remain competitive our universities need to be properly funded. One of the many benefits of being part of the United Kingdom is that Scottish universities currently receive a large amount funding from UK bodies. Scotland punches above its weight in terms of competing for UK research funding.

The single, best, most certain way to protect our status as a world-leader in research is for Scotland to remain a strong part of our United Kingdom.

Professor Hugh Pennington, sets out why he believes Scottish science is Better Together

I am a Scottish scientist because of the war in Vietnam.  At the time of the conflict, I was in the US, but only on a short term visa. As a Doctor, the draft awaited me, so I had to leave.

I contacted the Medical Research Council (MRC) in London about virology jobs in Africa, but with no luck. However, there was one an opening at the Institute of Virology in Glasgow. I was fortunate to get the job. It was the best career move of my life.

The MRC exemplifies why British research is so successful. It claims 29 Nobel Prizes. Its practical achievements have been outstanding, including the discovery of the influenza virus, penicillin, the structure of DNA, monoclonal antibodies, and MRI.

It spends big in Scotland. There are currently 43 grants from the body to the likes of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh & Glasgow Universities -  worth £31,418,000.

£4M has been committed to the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research and a £36M investment to March 2015 has been made at the University of Edinburgh Institute of Genetics & Molecular Medicine, which has more than 200 MRC staff and students.

The MRC has 4 research units in Scotland (25 in the UK as a whole) and 4 research centres out of 27 in the UK.

The research it funds is crucial to the success of Scottish universities.

It helps to explain Scottish success in the recent 2012-2013 Times Higher Education World University Rankings; four in Scotland made the top 200,with Edinburgh 32nd, St Andrews 108th, Glasgow 139th, and Aberdeen 176th.

The MRC is not the only Research council. Funding from others is also vitally important for Scottish science. In 2010/11, total Research Council funding of £67,076,00 came to Edinburgh, for example, amounting to almost half of all its external research grants.

It is clear that Scotland does extremely well in Research Council funding. The current budget for this UK money is more than  £3billion. It covers the full spectrum of academic disciplines; the medical and biological sciences, astronomy, physics, chemistry and engineering, social sciences, economics, environmental sciences and the arts and humanities.

The competition is intense. I know, because I was once on a committee that gave it out; most applications were unsuccessful. Only the best were funded. But competition is good for science, which is itself an intensely competitive enterprise. It drives standards up remorselessly.

The British research system has evolved over centuries. Scots have always played key roles in establishing and maintaining it; Sir Robert Moray, quartermaster general of the Scottish Army that invaded England in 1640,brought Roundheads and Cavaliers together to found the Royal Society in 1662, the formal start of British science.

After Oxford and Cambridge, the most successful English research universities are University College London and Imperial College. Both were founded by Scots on Scottish lines.

Parochially I am proud to live as a microbiologist in Aberdeen, where Alexander Ogston, with a research grant from the British Medical Association, discovered Staphylococcus aureus (the SA in MRSA), and where Patrick Manson was a student.

He showed the importance of mosquitoes as disease vectors and founded the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I was also particularly proud to chair the conference last year celebrating Kilmarnock Academy’s two Nobel Laureates, Alexander Fleming and John Boyd Orr.

Key to the success of British science has been the unimpeded two-way traffic of ideas, money and people across the border. So I believe that if Scotland leaves the UK its science will take a knock.

I await with interest how the ‘Yes’ proponents propose to continue not only the continued access to UK Research Council funding but the competitive drive brought by bidding for it.

Better together for science, surely!

Hugh Pennington is an Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen