Research excellence in Scotland – musings on sustainability post-independence


By stewartb – long read

In May 2022, with little or no media coverage in Scotland, the results of the UK-wide assessment of the quality and impact of research undertaken within universities – the ‘Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021’ – was published.

In summary, this is what the representative body, Universities Scotland had to say:

‘Every one of Scotlands 18 universities undertakes research judged to be of world-leading” or 4* quality on the overall profile.

’86% of the research submitted by Scotlands universities (to the REF assessment) has been judged to be world-leading (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in its quality. The equivalent figure for all UK universities is 84.37%.

‘Scottish universities undertake world-leading and internationally excellent research in all 34 units of assessment – or subject areas – assessed by the REF. That includes subjects such as clinical medicine, mathematical sciences and art and design.’

The director of Universities Scotland is also quoted: ‘Having world-leading research in every institution in Scotland is a huge asset for this nation.’


But we know from experience that to such positives there is a predictable, scaremongering response: ‘this is only feasible because Scotland is in the UK’. Here are some thoughts on the validity or otherwise of that sort of assertion, one of the kind we are likely to hear again and again as we approach decision time on self-determination.

Comparative resourcing

The OECD is the authoritative source of analysis of R&D resourcing internationally. The OECD graph below plots the number of researchers employed per 1,000 population in member countries against domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of national GDP.  For illustration, along with the UK (aka GBR) I have highlighted where Ireland, New Zealand, Estonia, Norway, Finland and Denmark plot – countries not unlike a prospective independent Scotland.

Each of these independent counties make their own – more or less different – decisions on the level of public funding devoted to R&D. These democracies allocate resources in ways considered ‘right’ for their circumstances. There is no compelling reason why an independent Scotland could not opt – if its democratically-elected government so chooses – to match proportionately ANY of the highlighted resourcing positions. With comparable agency, an independent Scotland would be perfectly able to decide to have a similar or even a relatively higher – or if we decide, lower – level of resourcing compared to the present UK.

The status of the UK

It’s not as if the UK is ‘exceptional’ – or ‘world leading’ – in terms of resources allocated to R&D.  According to the House of Common Library (HoCL) in May 2022:  ‘In the UK in 2019, total public and private expenditure on R&D was £38.5 billion, equivalent to 1.74% of GDP. At 1.74% of GDP, UK R&D expenditure as a proportion of GDP is lower than both the EU27 average of 2.1% and the OECD average of 2.5% in 2019.

‘The public sector (including the research councils and the devolved higher education (HE) funding councils) funded £10.45 billion R&D, 27.1% of the total.’

Source: House of Commons Library (4 May 2022) Research and Development funding policy ( )

In 2021, the various UK science and engineering institutions came together (as the British Academy) to comment on the UK government’s policy on R&D investment. They state:

‘Overseas investment, including from EU funding programmes (such as Horizon Europe and European Structural and Investment Funds), also makes a significant contribution towards total investment and leverages funding from other sources. Maximising the potential of UK R&D will be problematic without realising the closest achievable association with EU research and innovation programmes.(my emphasis)

The Academy compared the UK to international competitor countries:

‘The UK invests a lower percentage of GDP in R&D than most of our competitors, many of whom have also launched specific strategies targeted at boosting their innovation performance, including increasing their R&D investment. In 2018, total R&D spend across the OECD equated to 2.4% of GDP, up from 2.37% in 2017. The UK’s 2.4% target is a race to the average, which is why the longer-term goal of 3% is important.’


Pattern of expenditure within the UK

However, the total sum doesn’t tell the whole story. From the same HoCL source: ‘In 2019, the highest concentration of R&D expenditure was performed in the South East (22%), with £7.5 billion spent. R&D performed in the South East, the East of England and London accounted for almost 61% of all UK R&D.’

And to re-enforce this point, from the British Academy’s paper the map below shows the distribution of R&D spend. The dominance of the greater south east is evident. A case of ‘for those that have, more will be given’ – and over time, where more and more benefit will accrue?

A framework for appraisal

One possible way of thinking about resourcing at a policy level is like this:

  • human and financial resources are ‘inputs’ to a country’s research and innovation ‘system’ – these inputs may come from the private and public sectors: the former may be incentivised by government tax policy
  • the inputs enable ‘activities’ which lead to the delivery of ‘outputs’
  • however, the policy aim nationally is to achieve sufficient and appropriate ‘outcomes’ – i.e. to realise ‘benefits’, however specified in nature and time, which contribute to national needs and wants
  • these ‘outcomes’ in turn should contribute measurable, positive economic, societal and/or environmental ‘impacts’ – net of the input costs to achieve them and additional to what might have been achieved anyway without public financing. 

Getting the ‘right’ level of resourcing – efficiently, effectively and economically allocated – in order to realise desired outcomes and impact on a sustainable basis is always, and everywhere, non-trivial!

Of course there are always other, competing demands for resources. Conceptually, each can be assessed within its own, similar framework or ‘logic model’. However, in reality, for a government charged with delivery across a complex of multiple, diverse policy areas, inter-dependencies between one policy strand and others soon become obvious when seeking an optimal return on inputs in terms of outcomes and impact.

It should be blindingly obvious that when a democratic government is hogtied by restricted access to relevant policy levers, the intrinsic, system-level challenges are much, much more difficult to address successfully.

Access to EU R&D programmes

Crucial as financial resource levels are, the ability of researchers to network, to collaborate and to enjoy ‘mobility’ internationally is also of major importance.

One of the scares raised before the independence referendum in 2014 was that a ‘yes’ vote would result in Scotland being outside both the EU and the UK research ‘systems’. It was claimed that Scotland’s researchers would be disadvantaged in the context of participation in the EU’s flagship ‘Horizon’ programme. Of course, Scotland and its researchers ARE now out of the EU – despite the majority view of the Scottish electorate – with no realistic prospect of return whilst still within the UK. The current threat to the participation of Scotland-based researchers in the EU’s new Horizon Europe programme has already been addressed on TuS.


So not only has Scotland and its research community been removed from EU membership and full participatory status in Horizon Europe, it faces continuing uncertainty even over ‘associated country’ status.

Could an independent Scotland have had ‘associated’ status upon independence, during the period of time BEFORE securing EU membership? Could it have had ‘associate’ status if it had decided, once independent, against EU membership? In short, yes to both questions! See this from the official Horizon Europe website:

As of 24 May 2022, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Faroe Islands, Georgia, Iceland, Israel, Kosovo*, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia and Turkey have applicable association agreements in place. Association agreements have also been signed with Albania, Tunisia, Ukraine. They are currently undergoing national ratification procedures and are expected to enter into force shortly. The United Kingdom will be associated by means of a Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

‘Association negotiations with Morocco continue. The exploratory talks with the Republic of Korea are progressing, as well as those with Japan. Exploratory talks with Canada and New Zealand have been finalized.’


In short, unless an independent Scotland was viewed as a pariah state (which is nonsensical), Scotland would have been welcomed as an ‘associated country’ – and it will be in future whilst outside the EU either temporarily or over the longer term. And so ‘uncertainty’ over EU research participation disappears – did it in truth ever exist?

BREXIT is very, very bad … but!

Given that the UK’s status in the EU Horizon Europe programme is still not confirmed, one wonders how ‘uncertainty’ is impacting those academics who argued in 2014 against Scotland’s independence? It seems no matter how bad BREXIT might be, some may still favour it over Scotland having agency to determine its future international relationships. That this is still the case – even despite strongly expressed views against BREXIT – is hard to credit. I give you arch-Unionist, Professor Hugh Pennington as an exemplar.

Back in 2013, the BBC News website told us this about him: ‘He is spearheading the new group Academics Together, an arm of the pro-UK Better Together campaign. Prof Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said the absence of barriers allowed not just “funding and people, but ideas and innovation, to flow freely across borders”. And adds: ‘Last week leading bacteriologist Prof Hugh Pennington warned that a “yes” in next year’s referendum could curtail the careers of young scientists.’  (As an aside, personally I found the latter claim to be an especially unworthy scare intended as it was to influence aspirational young people, their families and teachers!)


I recently stumbled by chance across what Professor Pennington wrote subsequently about BREXIT, for the Labour Hame website on 1 July 2016: ‘Brexit is a victory for xenophobia, nationalism and isolationism. Never mind anything else, these things are particularly incompatible with science.


But despite this excoriating description of BREXIT, the same writer goes on to argue that an independent Scotland is the greater threat – and I suspect he still would. He writes: ‘For scientists in Scotland all this (i.e. BREXIT) is bad enough. But the prospect of Indy Ref 2 doubles the dread.’

Leaving aside that EU membership is NOT a prerequisite of a collaborative association with EU research initiatives, the implication that an independent Scotland doubles his dread of xenophobia etc. is unfathomable – to put it politely! And to at least 50% of the people of Scotland, his assertion is an (expletive) insult!

Let’s put matters more calmly! The odious assertions ignore the evidence that Scotland’s people (by a majority) and its government rejected the awful BREXIT he describes; it ignores the evidence that many in Scotland, including Scotland’s government, wish to secure EU (perhaps EFTA) membership for an independent Scotland as soon as possible. It ignores the fact that ‘associate’ status within Horizon Europe would be favoured by and open to Scotland. Moreover, it ignores the general support for welcoming people from elsewhere to work in Scotland, including in our universities. In Scotland there is wide support for finding ways – which may include replicating the sorts of bilateral ways already in operation – to collaborate with nearest neighbours in research and innovation (various bilateral UK-Ireland research initiatives have been established post BREXIT). Absolutely no ‘xenophobia’, no ‘isolationism’ here!

End note

Whether as an EU member country, or outside the EU and an ‘associate country’, researchers in an independent Scotland would be able to collaborate in Horizon Europe projects/programmes with researchers across the EU and those beyond in the wider ‘associated country’ community.

In either membership circumstance, researchers in Scotland would be able to collaborate on Horizon Europe projects/programmes with researchers in England/Wales/NI – but only if one matter outwith Scotland’s control is resolved. That the government in Westminster sorts out ITS RELATIONSHIP with the EU – it actually ‘gets Brexit done’ properly – and does what its research community wishes, namely to secure access to the Horizon Europe programme. 

On 13 July 2022, the online Research Profession News ran an article headlined: ‘UK’s Horizon Europe plan B under threat’, adding ‘Very real risk membership of EU research programme and planned replacement both fail to happen. The science community has urged the UK government to find a resolution to the Horizon Europe impasse in its final weeks of existence, amid fears that the fall of Boris Johnson could throw key R&D plans into disarray.’

Whilst Scotland is within the UK – and without agency – the research community in Scotland may or may not be able to participate in Horizon Europe. As spectators, it cannot know! The outcome will depend on who the 100,000 plus Tory Party members – mostly older, male and living in the south of England – select to make the decision on Scotland’s researchers’ – and indeed on Scotland’s – behalf!


3 thoughts on “Research excellence in Scotland – musings on sustainability post-independence

  1. Scotland has the most universities in the world (pro rata). 15 unis to 5.4million pop. Colleges and apprenticeships. The most highly educated population in the World. 30% from school. 20-25% Mature students. Life long learning. 15% EU students (falling?) Foreign students that pay the full cost. Scotland educated more people than anywhere. (Pro rata)

    The next is Canada 56%. US has 40% to degree level. Students come from all over the world to study in Scotland. Students from Scotland go worldwide to study. Most courses have a reciprocal exchange opportunities. Worldwide.

    First country in the world to support tertiary education, up till 14 years. Scotland has always had a great commitment to education, Scotland the place of invention and discovery. (the Chinese). Led on to the internet. Scotland philosophers changed the world, The Enlightenment. The Declaration at Arbroath. One person, one vote. Engaged in democracy worldwide.

    The Scottish Gov supports Education one of the most important spheres in society. Grants and loans. Extended to those in care. Less student debt, lower fees, More affordable. Additional needs support which could be improved. More diagnoses for those on the spectrum. To support and aid development.

    The teachers are more 10% more highly educated and 10% more remunerated, than in the south.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oxbridge the most subsidised universities in the UK. 20 to 1 of all the other universities. subsidised with public money. The private school educated wealthy. Elitist, unjustified and unfair. Eton, Oxford to Westminster the road to ruin, death and destruction, worldwide. Evel psychopaths. Ruining other people’s lives with absolutely no principles or justice. Oblivious. The only reason they are in politics is to line their own pockets.

    The SNP funded by the members. Not banks or financial institutes or trade unions.
    Scottish Gov can do the right thing without interference from other sources. Acting in the best interest of the people. Unlike Westminster acting in the interest of other corporate, lobbying interest. Often secretly keeping it hidden under the Official Secrets Act,.


  3. An excellent and poignant read…
    On your ultimate point that “The outcome will depend on who the 100,000 plus Tory Party members”, I would suggest that is merely the coronation for the one chosen months ago to succeed, the rest is pure theatre.

    Unfortunately modern politics has become increasingly myopic – What was once planned 30 years ahead, fell to the MPs elected term in office, now tomorrow is someone else’s problem.
    For the Tories it has always been about money, hence the pickle the UK landed in over Covid, trying to throw large wads of cash at the problem when it landed, having defunded the preparedness plans for just such an event.

    R&D falls into the long term category, so unless there’s a quick buck to be made, it is way down the political agenda unfortunately.


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