A referendum on Scotland’s independence will take place later this year on Sept, 18, 2014 and. in the meantime, there’s a great deal of discussion about what a ‘yes’ vote might mean. Canadians will be somewhat familiar with this process having experienced two ‘sovereignty’ referendum votes (1980 and 1995, respectively) in the province of Québec and two 1948 referendums (the first result was inconclusive) in Newfoundland where they chose between dominion status and joining the Canadian confederation (Referendums in Canada Wikipedia entry).
One of the features of Québec’s sovereignty or independence proposals is a desire to retain the financial advantages of being party to a larger,established country while claiming new advantages available to an independent constituency or as they say ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’.
While there are many, many historical, cultural and other differences between the situations in Québec and Scotland, it is not entirely surprising to note that there is at least one area where the Scottish/UK debates seem to be emulating the Québec/Canada debates and that is the desire to retain the advantages of being part of the UK with regard to science research funding.
According to a Dec. 2013 (?) posting of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) ‘Future of the UK and Scotland’ blog two reports discussing the subject of science research funding in the context of Scotland’s proposed independence were launched in November 2013,
In November , two papers were published regarding the future of Scotland. The first, ‘Scotland analysis: Science and research’, written by the UK government, and unveiled by David Willetts, UK Science Minister earlier in November, focuses solely on the issues related to science and research in Scotland, whereas the second one, a Scottish Government White Paper, addresses a whole range of issues associated with independence in Scotland with a brief discussion of the futures of science and higher education in Scotland (Chapter 5- Education, Skills and Employment).
Both papers testify to the strength of the Scottish science base and the contribution of Scottish universities to the UK research base as a whole. …
However, when it comes to the independence debate, the two papers present contrasting positions. The UK government paper highlights the disproportionate level of funding and research support that Scottish universities receive compared to the rest of the UK, warning that the funding will not continue at the same level in an independent Scotland. According to the paper, while Scotland only contributes 8% to the GDP, it receives 13% of the research funding from various funding bodies. Should Scotland go independent, the paper argues, the UK research funding flow will stop and it will be up to the Scottish Funding Council to decide whether to keep public research funding at present levels. [emphasis mine]…
Adopting a different perspective, the Scottish Government White Paper argues that it will be in the interest of both sides to remain in a ‘common research area’, which shares research councils, access to facilities, and peer reviewing. According to this paper, Scotland universities have made a huge input to UK research and the research councils have been partly funded by Scottish taxpayers. Therefore, Scotland will seek to remain in the ‘common research area‘ and will negotiate a formula to continue funding research councils based on population, but with Scottish research institutes receiving lower or higher funding support based on their research performance. [emphases mine]
… The Scottish Government White Paper presents an ideal research system which maintains the positive aspects of the current system but eliminates other features (for example, attracting international research talent through modifying immigration policy). [emphasis mine] …
At a workshop, organised by the ESRC Innogen Centre in November  and attended by Scottish-based industrialists, academics, policy agencies and senior research managers, there was considerable debate about uncertainties such as these. There were real worries about how the current high levels of research funding could be continued and how Scotland would be able to compete on research
A July 5, 2014 news item on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) News online mentions the latest doings in this area of Scotland’s independence debate,
Medical and scientific research across the UK would suffer if Scotland votes for independence, according to the heads of three academic institutions.
The claim was made by the presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Sir Paul Nurse, Lord Stern and Sir John Tooke said scientific collaboration would be damaged by a “Yes” vote.
In a joint letter to The Times newspaper, the three academics also claimed that maintaining existing levels of research in Scotland would cost Scottish taxpayers more should the country leave the UK.
They wrote: “Scotland has long done particularly well through its access to UK research funding.
“If it turns out that an independent Scotland has to form its own science and research budget, maintaining these levels of research spending would cost the Scottish taxpayer significantly more.”
They went on to state that the strong links and collaborations which exist across the UK “would be put at risk”, with any new system aiming to restore these links “likely to be expensive and bureaucratic”.
The presidents wrote: “We believe that if separation were to occur, research not only in Scotland but also the rest of the UK would suffer.
However Academics for Yes, a pro-independence group which comprises 60 academics from Scottish universities, said a “Yes” vote would protect the country’s universities and allow research priorities to be determined.
Its spokesman, Professor Bryan MacGregor from the University of Aberdeen, said: “On the one hand, we have the UK and England contexts of cuts in research and science funding, high student fees with unsustainable loan funding, an immigration policy that is preventing and deterring international student recruitment and the possibility of an exit from the EU and its research funding.
“And, on the other, we have a Scottish government committed to funding research, to free access to universities for residents and to attracting international students.
Earlier this year a group of 14 clinical academics and scientists put their names to an open letter raising “grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly-competitive arena of biomedical research”.
But the Scottish government, which currently provides about a third of research funds, has argued there is no reason why the current UK-wide structure for funding could not continue post-independence.
Kieron Flanagan in a Feb. 12, 2013 posting on the Guardian political science blog explored the possibilities (Note: Links have been removed),
Let’s face it: few people on either side of the Scottish independence debate are likely to be swayed by arguments about the impacts independence might have on scientific research. Yet science is a policy area where major changes would follow from a “Yes” vote for an independent Scotland. Nonetheless, the commentator Colin Macilwain passionately argued that Scottish science is ready to go it alone in a recent Nature opinion column.
… an independent Scotland could choose to continue to subscribe to the UK research councils in the same way that associated non-EU countries pay to take part in the European research programmes. It would have a strong moral claim to continued access, and it would be difficult to see how a UK government could refuse such an arrangement. Continued access to the existing research councils would allow Scotland to ensure that a diverse range of funding sources remains available to its scientists, and might also help encourage UK research charities to continue to fund research in the country.
So, while Macilwain is certainly right that Scottish science can go it alone, those working in Scottish science may conclude that the additional costs of running a small country research system, the additional risks of maintaining autonomy for funding decisions in a much smaller political world, and the consequent reduction in diversity of funding streams together outweigh the attractions of building a whole new research system from scratch.
While I think Flanagan is quite right when he says the impact that a ‘Yes’ vote will have on science funding and research in Scotland is unlikely to sway anyone’s vote, it’s fascinating to observe the discussion. I don’t believe that any such specific concerns about science and research funding have ever arisen in the context of the Québec referendums. If someone knows otherwise, please drop a line in the comments.
In any event, I can’t help but wonder what impact a ‘Yes’ vote will have on other independence movements both in Canada (Québec certainly and Alberta possibly, where mumbles about independence are sometimes heard) and elsewhere.