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Research funding and independence

In Scotland one of the key manifesto pledges of the governing party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, is to have a referendum on independence before the end of the current parliament. I don’t intend to make this a political post, and the pros and cons of independence are left for different forums, but there is one issue that would impact all active researchers in Scotland should independence become a reality: research funding.

At present the funding of universities and colleges in Scotland is a devolved issue, meaning that we get money from the central UK Government (using what is called the Barnett formula), and then the Scottish Government can allocate this funding as it sees fit. Research funding, for the bulk of research funded in the UK, comes from the UK Research Councils, and it should be noted that this funding is also used to fund central university functions through ‘overheads’. The data for how all this money is divvied up is a little hard to bring together, so for the purposes of this simple analysis I will deal with the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (or EPSRC, ‘ep-surk’ ,for short). Note that the analysis that follows is a bit rough and ready, but the basic ideas hold.

The EPSRC currently has a grant portfolio of 6410 grants worth a total of £4.478 billion. Roughly the average grant lasts three years, so this equates to an average value of £699k per grant. The majority of grants will be much less than this due to the average being skewed by much larger grants, but per year each grant is worth about £233k on average. The overall value of the portfolio will vary over the next few years in line with inflationary decreases, and the EPSRC Chief Executive, Prof. David Delpy, recently said in an interview that his budget is around £800 million per year.

So how does Scotland fair in this? Well, if you look at all the grant income for Scottish Institutions (of which there are 17 that hold EPSRC grants) then this comes to a total of £565 million from 809 grants. And so this pretty much comes down to the averages calculated above, to £700k per grant. On a per head basis, assuming the UK has a population of 62 million and Scotland 5.2 million, then that’s £72k per head for the UK and £108k for Scotland (over the period of the current portfolio). Put another way, Scotland has 12.6% of the EPSRC portfolio (in number of grants and in cash) but only 8.4% of the population. So Scotland seems to punch above its weight in grant income from EPSRC. This implies, all things being equal, that Scotland might face a shortfall should a split from Westminster (or Swindon, home of the Research Councils) happen.

I can’t say whether this is also true for other disciplines. Nonetheless what these figures tell us is that in an independent Scotland, we need an extra £565 million from the Scottish exchequer just to keep things as they are (which equates to roughly £185 million per year). This of course is only for engineering and physical sciences – I have no doubt that for biological and medical sciences the bill would be bigger. The big question is: how likely is this? I’m often pessimistic around these issues, so let’s assume we get cut. This means not only less research going on, and so job losses, fewer teaching staff and possibly a brain drain south of the border, poorer student learning experiences, but also further cuts to already fragile University budgets.

Note also it would seem unclear how charities and other NGOs (the Royal Society for example) would view funding in Scotland. I was a recipient of a Royal Society Fellowship for eight years – would future Scottish researchers be eligible for these, and would there be replacements if not?

If we assume this analysis is correct and that Scotland could no longer afford to fund university research in the manner to which it is accustomed what then happens? In the short term there might be cost sharing between the new Scottish funding body and ESPRC, but this would not likely last beyond the period of current grants, and EPSRC might be well within their rights to cut all funding to Scotland, saving the rest of the UK a few hundred million pounds. We could pay a fee into EPSRC, but if we take out more than we put in, that arrangement wouldn’t seem terrible fair, or long lasting. After this, we would seem to have two options: one is to go for a smaller version of what we have at present: a SEPSRC. As Scotland has demonstrable expertise in the areas funded by EPSRC, a reasonable argument could be made for such a body, but realistically with a small pot of money and a small academic pool the more likely scenario is to go down the research focussing route.

In part research focussing exists within the various pooling exercising that exist in Scotland, such as SUPA, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance, which tend to work around predefined themes (e.g. photonics, physics and life sciences, energy, condensed matter etc). These seem attractive from a political viewpoint: try and focus on your strengths and look for direct societal benefit. This is the type of model that is used by organisations such as the Science Foundation Ireland. A few years back I applied for a job in Ireland, and I found that it was a difficult stretch to try and shoehorn my research into the main themes defined by SFI, and the fear for many would be the same would be true under new Scottish funding bodies, not just for me, but for many others who fall outside the ‘immediate’ needs of the funding councils.Blue-sky funding would still exist, hopefully, but would be significantly curtailed. I also note that research focussing could mean a focus on institutions as opposed to target areas, which would impact on the smaller institutions.

Research academics in the Scotland therefore have questions to pose to the powers that be as they ramp up a call for independence. If Scotland is to really develop a knowledge economy and an increasingly skilled workforce, what form of research environment will we have after independence? What will the budget be for University research? What model for funding will be used? And if there are budget cuts or shortfalls what impact will this have for University viability and teaching?

This one specific issue could ultimately impact on my job, and the jobs of most of my colleagues in higher eduction in Scotland. Similar questions will need to be asked for many areas of public life, I have no doubt, but there is a real danger that when looking at the broad brush details of independence, the ‘little’ details that will impact many will be overlooked. Failure to address these at the start of the process rather than when a decision is made, may well leave us all the poorer.

So are my figures and thoughts misleading, or naive? Are there alternatives to research funding that we could think of. Ultimately if we had a blank slate to design a new mechanism for research funding what would it look like (hopefully not so much like the new EPSRC…).

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