What does Brexit mean for the future of research in Scotland?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 15 November 2016 in Inside Politics

Scotland has a long history of hosting scientific advances, but could Brexit put research at risk?

At the start of the 19th century, Edinburgh had one of the best medical schools in the world, with students flocking to the city from across Europe to pack out theatres and watch famed surgeons at work.

The school’s success was built on the back of its advances in the study of anatomy, made possible by a supply of fresh corpses – executed criminals – which were delivered to the school for dissection.

Over time the school’s reputation grew, and the demand for cadavers grew with it. For those studying medicine, getting hold of a fresh body could be the key to advancing their career. The problem, though, was that there were never enough to go round. Demand was outstripping supply, and the market reacted.


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And so it was that medical students, along with some local entrepreneurial types, decided to start going out to the city’s graveyards in the dead of night, to get a fresh corpse themselves.

For a while everyone was pretty happy with the arrangement. The medical school received corpses and the city’s body-snatchers – also known as ‘resurrectionists’ – got a good wage.

But it couldn’t go on. A quote from 1821, attributed to a Reverend Fleming of West Calder, reads: “Few burial grounds in Scotland, it is believed, have escaped the ravaging hands of resurrection men; and it is reported that with respect to a church-yard not far from Edinburgh, that, till within three years ago, when the inhabitants began to watch the graves, the persons interred did not remain in their graves above a night, and that these depredations were successfully carried on for nine successive winters.”

Public concern grew as the industry expanded – no one wanted their relative dug up – and so it became fairly common to hold a vigil over a new grave to stop it being opened. In fact, some went even further than just guarding graves – constructing ‘deathwatch towers’ in graveyards, building higher walls, and even inventing a device known as the ‘mortsafe’ – a sort of cage used to stop a corpse being removed from the ground.

In the end Parliament felt compelled to take action to provide more legal routes to the scientific community, passing the Anatomy Act in 1832, which allowed a surgeon to dissect a cadaver, as long as they had obtained it legally, and no relative objected. In reality, many of those who ended up on the dissection table had died in prison, or workhouses.

And so the medical school continued to get research materials, and Scotland’s reputation as a centre for scientific development continued to grow, bringing advancements in anaesthetics, vaccinations, transplants and a host of other areas. Medical research and Scotland have been closely entwined ever since.

Today, Scotland still produces world-class research in life sciences. Indeed, the country leads the UK, with around 600 Scottish organisations either directly or indirectly linked to the sector, which employs more than 32,000 people. In monetary terms, life sciences alone generate more than £3bn a year.

And yet, after Theresa May’s insistence on pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’, the future of scientific research in Scotland has been cast in doubt. In fact the decision has led to considerable uncertainty, with voices from across the higher education sector – the third largest in Scotland when measured against its contribution to the economy – expressing concern over what the future might hold.

Of course, the shape of any deal between the UK and the EU is yet unknown, but early signs would suggest freedom of movement is a red line as far as the PM’s negotiating team is concerned, and clearly universities and research institutions are worried.

In its submission to the UK Scottish Affairs Committee, Universities Scotland said it wished to “stress how important our community of EU and other international staff and students is to Scotland’s higher education sector”.

Calling for the UK Government to negotiate a bespoke arrangement with the EU, which would allow continued participation in the European Research Area for countries outside of the EU, it said: “Universities want to maintain the closest possible relationship with our European neighbours. We want to see the open exchange of talent and ideas continue across political boundaries.

“We ask both the Scottish and UK Governments for as much certainty for EU students, staff and our institutions as it is possible to give, as early as it is possible to give it. Most significantly, our existing community of EU students and staff need urgent confirmation on their immigration status after the UK exits the EU.

“Whatever arrangement is reached for Scotland and the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the mobility of talent needs to be retained for the higher education sector if we are not to become intellectually and culturally impoverished.”

Evidence from the Research Councils UK (RCUK), which represents the UK’s seven research councils, accounting for £3bn in research investment each year, made similar points, warning that “in a climate of uncertainty, the talented students, researchers and technical specialists required for UK research to continue to be a world leader will leave or not come to the UK”.

It said: “It is vital that the long-term position of non-UK EU nationals is clarified as soon as possible to provide reassurance and prevent ‘brain-drain’. Future arrangements must enable RCUK and the UK research system to continue attracting and retaining the best from across the world, and ensure that UK and international research talent can continue to benefit from mobility into and out of the UK.”

And beyond concern over freedom of movement, and its importance to research and development in Scotland, the EU is a massive contributor to research in Scottish universities.

As a 2015 Royal Society report, ‘UK research and the European Union’, makes clear, the proportion of research income distributed from the EU to UK universities has been increasing.

It says: “Since the 2010 UK Spending Review, universities have seen their total research income rise slightly, despite experiencing a drop in UK Government funding for research through the Higher Education Funding Council and the research councils. This is due to increases in research income from other sources including the EU and the private sector.”

In total, EU programmes will provide around €120bn to directly support research, development and innovation activities between 2014 and 2020.

Of that money, around €40.2bn comes from EU structural funds, for R&D activities, with another €5bn coming to the UK from sectoral R&D programmes. But by far the biggest chunk came from Horizon 2020 – the EU’s Research and Innovation programme – which will distribute almost €80bn in funding between 2014 and 2020.

Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen and a member of the Advisory Council for the Campaign for Science and Engineering, says that when it comes to attracting research funding from the EU, it is clear Scotland “punches above its weight”.

He told Holyrood: “We do in Scotland and so does the UK as a whole. In fact, the UK gets more money than anyone except Germany, which of course has a much bigger population. That is the situation at the moment but of course, what will happen Brexit-wise is very difficult to predict.”

At present, thirteen countries from outside the EU have ‘associated country’ status, which means, in return for contributing to framework programme budgets, their researchers and organisations can apply for Horizon 2020 projects with the same status as those from EU member states.

Associated country status is open to countries that are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and current EU candidate nations. However, the terms of their association differ by country, and they do not have a role in the negotiations that shape EU research funding. Still, this could offer a glimmer of hope for researchers dependent on Horizon 2020 funding.

Pennington said: “Depending on how the negotiations go, and how much science is focused on, we could be an associated member of Horizon 2020 – lots of countries that aren’t in the EU, like Iceland, Turkey, Tunisia and Norway and Switzerland still get access to the funds. A condition of that would mean making a contribution, but that is no bad thing because we make a contribution at the moment and we get more back than we put in – if we can keep that kind of arrangement.

“But the problem is, the Swiss have got themselves into difficulties because they had a referendum on immigration in 2014 – they basically wanted to put controls on immigration – and it looks like they will be kicked out [of Horizon 2020] as a result. Now that is obviously an issue in the question over Brexit, and at the moment things don’t look too good for free movement, so the omens for remaining in Horizon 2020 don’t look too good either, if that is what is going to happen.

“Of course, a special deal could be struck and we are a bit different to the other associated members in being so big – the only other country that comes close in terms of research excellence is Switzerland because they also punch above their weight in research output. But there is a big issue there.

“The Brexit vote has really put a black cloud over everything. And of course Horizon 2020 is a big source money. All Scottish research universities benefit from it. Edinburgh does particularly well, Glasgow does well, then Dundee, Aberdeen and St Andrews get less but they all get money from it, and that money will stop if we don’t get that deal as an associated member.”

Pennington adds: “The Horizon 2020 programme aims to make Europe more competitive, and make members of the EU and those who join in more effective. It is a large sum of money and it comes from taxpayers, but you don’t hear people jumping up and down and saying it is a waste of money because it is a good thing. Unless we get some special deal – and who knows if we will – we will probably be out, eventually, from Horizon 2020.”

And while the UK Government has given short-term assurances over the future of staff, students and research, over the long term there is obviously a deep-seated sense of concern permeating across the sector, following the Brexit vote.

Referring to government assurances, Pennington says: “We don’t know how long that would go on, though. It would be for existing programmes, already in the pipeline, or any new programme with two or three years to run, but after that it is anyone’s guess what would happen.

“It would depend on the state of the economy and political will and all that kind of stuff, and I don’t think anyone is particularly optimistic that everything will be fine in ten years’ time. I think the general feeling is that there are hard times ahead and we should be looking at what we can plan for.”

Of course, some of these arguments will seem familiar, given the debate over the future of R&D funding in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum. In fact, swap UK with EU, and some of the arguments are identical.

Questions over the future of Scottish university research, and what independence would mean for the country’s ability to attract funding from research bodies, are familiar. The fault lines developed in the two-year campaign, during which the Yes campaign argued independence would offer the Scottish Government and Scottish universities a chance to align economic benefit and research more closely.

Many of these lines – along with new ones, such as claims that Brexit will allow Scottish universities to charge EU students fees and boost their budgets – were also a part of the debate over the UK’s EU membership.

The key difference, though, was that the arguments presented by the Yes campaign over the effect of constitutional change on science and innovation in Scotland remained hypothetical. In the case of the EU referendum, the arguments presented by Leave will now be put to the test.

What the Leave vote will mean remains unclear, and much will depend on what sort of deal Theresa May and her Brexit negotiating team are able to secure.

Still, whether it is in the context of securing access to European research grants, or a supply of dead bodies to a medical school, it is clear that scientific research and development does not happen in isolation. 




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