How well prepared is Scotland for the R&D challenges of the future?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 8 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Scotland produces world-leading research, but how efficient is the path from an idea being born to its arrival on the market?

STEM class - image credit: West Dumbartonshire Council

When West Dunbartonshire Council teamed up with the Glasgow Science Centre, the aim had been to bring science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to life in schools.

Certainly the children were on board. As one primary seven put it, somewhat bluntly: “It’s more exciting than the classroom”.

The partnership started off with the local authority – one of the areas included in the attainment challenge – sending staff to the science centre for in-service work, or to take children on trips. But from that the local authority decided to take the partnership further and develop a new science hub in St Patrick’s Primary School in Dumbarton, complete with a science lab, a tree-shaped gathering space, a cave area for smaller group working, and a section with a digital screen linked to tablets.


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Laura Mason, chief education officer at West Dunbartonshire Council, explained: “The notion was that we would develop STEM hubs – exciting places within the school for children to learn creatively, in an environment that doesn’t seem like a traditional classroom. We have it happening in a lot of our schools now, but we have one bespoke centre in St Patrick’s Primary, where we worked with the science centre to design what the area would look like. As well as redefining the learning space, we did some professional learning with our teachers, where the science centre came and worked alongside the teachers to build their confidence. It’s called Inspire and Challenge.

“Children are really encouraged to be inquisitive and creative. So instead of the teacher telling them what is happening, the children will be posed a question or a problem, then they come up with a solution through practical application. The people we work with at the science centre are absolutely inspiring – they have a perspective which just lifts teachers’ imaginations and gives them the courage and the confidence to get on with it.”

The education service wants children to be exposed to science from the earliest stages, with even nurseries doing outdoor work with STEM. The aim is to go beyond knowledge-based teaching and allow children to direct their own learning through inquisitive and creative thinking.

As another P7 pupil said: “Teachers have started leaving us because they said you should try and figure it out, then you can ask each other about it. Last week, the teacher explained [the exercise] and then she’d done all the explaining and she said, ‘what questions do you want to ask each other?’

“Then she thought she would do a wee bit of teaching and then this week she left us to it, she gave us the equipment and just told us what to do and ask each other questions. We ask each other more questions, it’s more professional because we learned off each other instead of learning from the teacher all the time.”

Scientific research and development plays a key part in the Scottish economy, and over the last few years there has been a huge drive to lay the foundations required to give the sector the support it needs. And the headline figures are positive, with a statistical report from Scottish Enterprise, released in February, finding that businesses in Scotland employed 10,985 R&D staff in 2015, up from 9,954 in 2014. It was the highest level of employment in the area since the series began in 2001, when R&D employment stood at 7,210.

Meanwhile Scottish Business Enterprise R&D expenditure in Scotland in 2015 was £871m, 4.2 per cent of the UK total of £20.9bn. Chemical sciences generated £890m GVA for the Scottish economy in 2014. The digital economy generated £4.7bn. In life sciences, Scotland leads the UK, with around 600 Scottish organisations either directly or indirectly linked to life sciences, employing more than 32,000 people. In monetary terms, the industry makes more than £3bn a year.

A recent PwC-commissioned review found that almost half a million UK jobs are supported by the life sciences sector, with the average GVA per employee over twice the UK average, at £104,000. Life science companies directly contributed £14.5bn to the UK economy in 2015, with an additional £15.9bn provided through the sector’s supply chain and employee spending.

Renewable energy is another growing sector, with R&D in Scotland proving fertile ground for new ideas and technologies.

Professor Andy Kerr is director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI), an offshoot of the University of Edinburgh aiming to bring businesses, researchers, communities and governments together in an effort to turn good low carbon ideas into reality.

He told Holyrood: “People talk about innovation in terms of ideas – but innovation, to me, is about putting something into practice. A lot of the work we do is about taking a nice idea, wherever it comes from, and then putting it into practice in a way that you can then measure, monitor, evaluate, see if it works and whether you can scale it, then work with financiers and investors to see if you could take it elsewhere.”

The centre runs a low carbon business incubator, called the Ideas Lab, which provides business support to more than 20 climate-positive entrepreneurs with dedicated business support, office space and access to its networks and events, as well as the Low Carbon Innovation project, which helped more than 200 climate-positive Scottish enterprises get off the ground, creating £3m of turnover and 25 new jobs.

But how efficient is the path from an idea being born to its arrival on the market?

Kerr is pretty upbeat. “The general sense in Scotland is that we have very good early stage support. Between everything from innovation vouchers to start-up grants through to fellowship schemes to the RSE and Scottish Enterprise, there is a lot of support for those early stage ideas. We have a lot of good people at universities, and we have a lot of good private incubators, so in that sense, we are very well placed for those early stage ideas.

“One of the big challenges for companies in Scotland is that they tend to think about the Scottish market. The Scottish market is tiny, so the issue is how you scale up. The answer is, if you want to get beyond angel funding, you really have to go elsewhere. So increasingly, we are seeing links into London or into China to get bigger sources of funds to help scale up some of these early stage ideas. We are also trying to tie up with European partners in terms of using their networks to get investors into this space.”

Recent policy announcements from both Westminster and Holyrood have helped bolster optimism.

Kerr said: “There has been a spectacular change at a UK level, essentially because we have an industrial strategy again that says we want to focus on getting to be top notch in certain areas. Now we might quibble about some of the particular ones they have chosen but the fact they are saying we need an industry strategy is good, because it recognises that the pure laissez-faire market hasn’t delivered what we want.

“On the Scottish side, I think a lot of us who are involved in this sort of space were very pleased with the Programme for Government. The focus was on innovation. We have always had good universities and we have a lot of public sector support but we haven’t really capitalised on it, so the question of how we capitalise on it as a country is really important going forward.”

The Programme for Government promised a 70 per cent increase in support for business R&D and included plans for a network of Scottish trade envoys, an increase in support for key sectors such as clean energy and lightweight manufacturing and the establishment of a new ‘unlocking ambition challenge’ to encourage entrepreneurship with 40 start-ups to be supported by established entrepreneurs.

Part of the Scotland Can Do innovation forum, the unlocking ambition challenge programme will recruit candidates from anywhere in the world – on the basis that they relocate or establish their business in Scotland. The successful cohort will be mentored and funded as they develop their ideas, receiving bespoke support by partner organisations from the public and private sectors.

Meanwhile the government’s new STEM strategy, released earlier this month, outlines plans to inspire enthusiasm for STEM among all sectors of society over the next five years.

Skills development is at the heart of the plan. As Shirley-Anne Somerville, Minister for Further Education, put it: “The sectors which feature in our vision for a high-tech, low-carbon economy have a golden thread – they all require a highly educated and skilled workforce with STEM capabilities in order to develop and grow.

“The future is truly one of opportunity and we must ensure everyone is equipped and supported to make the most of fast-paced technological change around us and the job opportunities this generates, enabling Scotland to become a STEM nation.”

Research and development in Scotland is taking place in a global market and while the country is often described as punching above its weight when it comes to scientific research, could that place be at risk?

For Kerr, the key is in gaining the maximum advantage from the ideas coming out of Scottish universities and research institutions. “In terms of the stuff we are involved in here – in energy, low carbon energy, clean energy, climate resilience – there is no doubt we are at the leading edge. The issue for us is in terms of know-how. We think up the idea, but too often, the know-how goes elsewhere. We don’t have many big companies based in Scotland. So the thinking has changed from ‘can you get an idea that goes global’ to ‘how do you make sure you retain jobs locally’?

“So Skyscanner has been bought by a Chinese company, but as long as it is still here, and the development side is still here, then there will be highly skilled jobs based in Scotland delivering that benefit from that company. Going forward, we will be in a knowledge economy and we have the potential to be at the front end of that. The danger is if your company gets sold too early, and that has happened in the past. When that happens, you lose the knowledge and economic benefit of recycled funding within the Scottish economy.

“Similarly, if you look at plans to decarbonise the housing or building sector in the next 15 or 20 years – the issue is not just whether you have all these nice pieces of technology coming out of universities, it’s also about how you make sure that apprentices going through college are skilled up in data stuff, in building management systems. It’s about whether the construction industry has the skill set to deliver cutting-edge new products and technologies that are coming through.”

He added: “It goes beyond the high-end stuff we are involved in, it’s about how you create a framework with FE colleges and with schools, in terms of what they are teaching, and so on. Elements of it are there, and we don’t have it all right, but you can see how it could all come together.” 

Or, as Laura Mason put it back in West Dunbartonshire: “You just need to watch how children explore an environment to see the value in capturing an interest at the earliest stage. They don’t know it’s science, technology, engineering and maths, but they soon do.”

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