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Scottish Independence Part 3: Interview With A Pro-Union Scientist

Welcome to the third in my series of posts about the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. In my previous post I interviewed a pro-independence teacher about their personal and professional reasons for choosing to vote Yes. Today I’d like to offer a perspective from the other side of the issue. I had originally planned to present an interview with a teacher who has chosen to vote No, but unfortunately that plan fell through. I’ve made a slight change and have instead interviewed a No-voting scientist who has worked extensively in a university setting. After all, School of Doubt caters for all levels of education and it can’t hurt to hear the views of someone with experience of the world of academia.

 

Full disclosure: Today’s interviewee is my sister. She kindly stepped in at the last minute and I’m very grateful. I have applied exactly the same rules to her post as I would have to that of the original interviewee. I’ve altered one of the questions to make it more relevant to her area of work without changing its basic point. All of the other questions remain the same as those asked in last week’s interview.

 

Dr Kirsty Houslay is a postdoctoral immunology researcher. Although she now works in industry, she spent several years working in the biology department of a major Scottish university. She is unable to vote in the referendum due to the fact that she does not currently live in Scotland, but she supports the maintenance of the union of the United Kingdom and so supports a “No” vote.

 

What is your opinion regarding Scottish independence and why do you hold it?

I would vote no in the upcoming Scottish Referendum because I believe that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. I have always been inclined to vote for maintaining Scotland’s status as part of the union, but when the referendum was officially announced I decided to keep an open mind and make my final voting decision based on the available facts.

 And this is exactly where the pro-independence campaign lost my vote. While there have been lots of reports about how successful and wealthy Scotland is just now – and could be in the future – I have personally yet to see anything concrete on how the infrastructure of an independent Scotland will be both established and economically funded.

 The main issues for me personally are the implications for the future of academic scientific research and education in Scotland.

 On top of all this, I am proud to be British! This does not mean I am not proud to be Scottish. I am equally proud to be both Scottish and British and do not want to lose this part of my identity.

 

As someone who has significant experience of the worlds of academia and of applied sciences, what have you experiences been regarding the discussion of Scottish independence with colleagues?

Ever since the independence referendum was proposed, there has been a lot of speculation about how scientific research in Scotland will be funded. In my experience in Life Sciences, the prospect of an independent Scotland generally seems to be met with a great deal of uncertainty and concern. This has been highlighted this month in an open letter written by 65 of the top researchers in life sciences in Scotland.

http://bettertogether.net/blog/entry/say-no-thanks-to-keep-our-universities-world-class

 This letter highlights the fears of academics like myself. At present the majority of funding in life sciences comes in the form of grants from UK research councils (eg the Medical Research Council), charities (eg the Wellcome Trust or Cancer Research UK) and the Scottish Government. This funding not only pays for high level professors, like the ones represented in the letter, but also pays for a wide number of resources vital for a successful University such as PhD students, technicians, support staff and undergraduate projects. While funding by the Scottish Government may continue as it has, it is still very unclear how funding previously provided by UK Research councils and some of the major medical research charities would be handled.

 From 2012-13 Scottish research received £257 million of UK research council funding. This represents 13.1% of all funding given by research councils that year. This is highly significant considering Scotland only represents 8.4% of the UK population. In addition to this, the Wellcome Trust have funded £600 million worth of research in Scotland in the last decade.

Details on how an independent Scotland would maintain this level of funding remain hazy. Even if the Scottish Government were able to match the £257 million in grants currently provided by the UK research councils, there seems to be little or no plan for how this will be done. Will new Scottish research councils be established? And, if so, how much will this cost and how long will it take?

Most grants currently last 3 to 5 years but can take up to a year to apply for, so it seems inevitable that there will be a gap in funding while all the details are established. What will this mean for research jobs?

 And what about the Wellcome Trust? When they reported to the UK Government Business, Innovations and Skills committee in 2013 they stated that they could not guarantee they would continue funding Scottish research at previous levels and pointed towards the model they already have in place with the Republic of Ireland (where they fund 50% of research when the other 50% is guaranteed by the government). Will the Scottish government accept this offer? If so, how will they account for this extra £150 million a decade?

 Without a coherent plan for continued academic research funding, there is bound to be an exodus of high-ranking scientists from Scotland, taking with them their expertise, students, international collaborations, and standing in the global scientific community. This will have damaging consequences for research in Scotland not just in the short term, but also well into the future. To me Scottish independence in its current proposed form just seems far too uncertain, and potentially damaging, for the Scottish research community.

 

What message would you give to an undecided 16 year old Scottish school pupil?

I think it is very important for undecided 16 year old Scottish school pupils to go and seek out the facts themselves and to make their own opinions. Unfortunately a lot of the debate has turned into a ‘who can shout loudest’ fight (from both sides!) and I worry about how this will affect the vote.

 If I was putting forward the case for no I would say, think about your education and future career: are there guarantees of how these will be protected in an independent Scotland? This generation are going to take the brunt of the uncertainty, leaving school as independence comes into effect. If I was in that position I would be very worried.

 I’d also say that voting No does not make you any less Scottish, or less proud of your country. Form your opinions based on what you think will give you the best life in the future, whether that is as a British or Scottish citizen.

 

What consequences would a Yes vote have for education in Scotland?

I’m going to answer this question based on University education as this is what I personally have most experience of.

 My opinion is that a Yes vote would negatively impact higher education in Scotland. We currently have a very highly regarded higher education system and the lack of tuition fees is incredible. However, I worry how the Scottish government will fund Universities and maintain free undergraduate higher education in the future. If the Universities face a dip in research funding as the transition occurs, it is unclear how they will be able to pay their support staff when budgets are already stretched. As it stands, Universities take a proportion of most research grants obtained in ‘bench fees’ to pay for support staff, maintenance, equipment and core development.

 Perhaps more concerning is the effect a Yes vote will have on the proportion of high level researchers in Scotland, and the effect this will have on undergraduate education. If funding levels falls and these world-renowned scientists leave Scotland then undergraduate education will be impacted massively. My entire career was shaped by attending lectures given by these Professors and lecturers and by gaining research experience in their labs. I would not have gotten to where I am today without this incredible resource, and it scares me that future generations may not have the same opportunities I had.

 

I’ve now presented the views of two individuals from opposite sides of the Scottish independence debate. Each of these individuals, both of whom I respect deeply, has kindly volunteered to take the time to answer my questions and to present their views publically. As with the previous interview, please do feel free to comment and ask questions about anything that has been mentioned in this post. I’ve asked Kirsty to be available to take part in any discussion that may arise.

My final post will follow in the next few days. I’ve deliberately tried to remain neutral over my last three posts, but I do have strong views of my own and my next post will present them as clearly as I can.

Until then, thanks for reading!

 

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Alasdair

Alasdair

Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

1 Comment

  1. September 17, 2014 at 6:21 pm —

    This is really interesting – an area I really don’t know a lot about. Kirsty’s points about research funding are convincing me further and further against independence I’m afraid. I just dread to think what might happen if it all collapses with so few concrete plans in place for important things like this.

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