11 September 2014

Devolution of Scottish R&D?

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A recent writing commission involved talking to a group of researchers in Scotland. They were mostly English ‘immigrants’ working north of the border simply because that is where the work took them. not being Scots, I'd guess that they had little allegiance to the country, although circumstances probably meant that they get to vote in the devolution poll.

Not having sought their permission, I had better not name the research centre they worked in, and ran. But it was obvious that Scotland was not really a natural home for their area of research.

Yes, there were companies nearby that the centre’s R&D fed into, but most of the audience was several hundred miles to the south, in the Midlands. Some local money and academic facilities persuaded the UK government that it wasn’t completely bonkers to set up shop in this northern enclave. But most of the money that keeps the place going comes from London, or rather, the Westminster money machine, in the shape of the Technology Strategy Board (the other TSB), now known as Innovate UK.

What happens if the Scots tell England to sling its hook? The research centre isn’t like to move its facilities back into friendly territory overnight, even though it would have no trouble finding excellent facilities next door to many more of its “customers”, not to mention world class academics. But in the longer term Scotland’s universities and businesses may have difficulties persuading their government to chuck money, whatever the currency, if it has any to spare, at researchers whose activities mostly benefit the enemy down south.

In the longer term, there will be pressure what is left of the UK to repatriate the research, pressure that many of the people who work their may not resist. The centre already has a hard time attracting experienced engineers who don’t want to cross the border. And it will find plenty of the bright young recruits its now relies in universities to the south and west.

Then there is the issue of where to build future generations of industrially oriented R&D centres. Old centres are harder to move. New ones can go anywhere. England isn’t likely to want to put money into Scottish research.

England is full of places that aspire to become the next Cambridge cluster. There is plenty of competition to ensure that the research and innovation that now makes Silicon Glen a global power house does not all end up in Silicon Fen.

For example, there is talk of a new National Institute for Materials Research and Innovation in the north of England. This is part of a general move on the part of the UK government to make up for past misdemeanours and to ensure that research spending is more evenly spread across the country. An independent Scotland isn’t likely to feature in such largesse. It can’t even guarantee to get a European contribution until it has completed what look like being long and complicated negotiations to persuade Brussels to let it join the club.

Nothing will happen immediately, but examples like this show why so many research in Scotland, many of whom are not Scottish, fear for their future. Not that this will carry any weight with Alex Salmond and his fellow secessionists. They just want to give the English a bloody nose because they feel like it. Sadly, if Salmond’s “Yes men” win, it could be sustained knockout blow to Scotland’s own research.