Q&A with science minister Richard Lochhead on science during COVID, Brexit readiness and the wider impact of research
COVID seems to have led to both an increased interest in science and an increase in fake science and conspiracy theories. Do you think the overall effect will be positive or negative in terms of people’s view of science?
There’s no denying the pandemic has raised the profile of science and scientists, and how different types of science advice and evidence inform the Scottish Government’s work. It’s important to remember there is no single piece of ‘science’ that helps us fight the impact of this virus. We need epidemiologists, clinicians, statistical modellers and a range of other experts. And we have to weigh that up with other considerations too, for example, economic and environmental impacts. It’s a complicated mix of evidence that is not as straightforward as we might like, but I think the vast majority of people will recognise the vital role of science, particularly around treatment and vaccination, and view that positively.
A lot of scientific research has been fast-tracked to get underway much quicker than usual due to coronavirus. What lessons can be learned from this for the future?
The Scottish medical research community responded very quickly to the needs arising from the pandemic and has made significant contributions to global efforts to understand and treat this new disease. This includes playing a leading role in a number of initiatives including the International Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Consortium to understand the infection, what happens to people who are ill, and what puts people at higher risk of severe illness; the RECOVERY trial, which is looking for effective therapies, including finding out the drug Dexamethasone can improve survival in people with severe COVID-19; the GenOMICC study looking at the role genes play in susceptibility to COVID-19, and how that might inform treatment; and late-stage trials of two promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
All this and other COVID-19 research has been prioritised and fast-tracked through streamlined funding and approval systems across the UK, whilst maintaining robust and rigorous scientific and research governance review. There will be value in looking at what we have done to see what we can learn and take forward from this experience, whilst recognising that a concentration of resources, as other research has paused, has also facilitated such fast-tracking.
How do we support the science sector to help build a low-carbon society?
Building a low-carbon society is a task for the whole of society and a task we must face head-on if Scotland is to play its part in this most global of challenges. We will need technical innovation in areas such as carbon capture, battery technology and offshore wind energy, but we will also require a significant behavioural shift to help us all achieve this.
We have a national culture of innovation and through key investments such as the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland and the innovation centres, we have built structures that help facilitate the interaction between industry, academia and the public sector to accelerate the pace of change.
Scotland’s scientific community has a huge part to play. We need to find the right ways to reduce the carbon we produce. Our universities and research institutes – global leaders in chemistry, engineering, land use, social policy and many other vital disciplines – will help us achieve this.
Our job as a government is to continue to support and encourage that science and the Scottish Funding Council is reviewing how to ensure we protect our scientific quality and our global reputation as part of its current review.
How do we ensure the science and research taking place in academia has a real impact on people’s day-to-day lives?
University research makes a huge contribution to the way we live. To keep these new ideas flowing into improvements to our lives we need to continue to invest in science, in research more generally and in training the researchers of the future. We need to attract investment and talent from all round the world, trading on Scotland’s global reputation as a science nation, a decent place to live and its supportive environment to build businesses.
All of us need to remember the importance of research in giving us medicines, the batteries for our new electric cars, hydrogen-powered ferries for our islands and the understanding of how to support and help our most fragile fellow citizens. We need to value science and research – it is one of the jewels in Scotland’s crown – and help our young people see the value of a fulfilling and exciting career in research. Our science centres and festivals also do a good job here, inspiring our next generation of scientists and giving people of all ages the opportunity to find out more about science and research and how they impact on our daily lives.
How prepared is the science and research sector in Scotland for the end of the Brexit transition period in two months’ time, and the effects this will have on free movement of researchers, research collaboration and funding, and what can the Scottish Government do to help?
On funding and collaboration, the UK Government is playing its cards close to its chest in Brexit negotiations with the European Commission. We have always said we want continued UK association in [EU research funding programme] Horizon Europe to preserve and maximise its benefits to the Scottish higher education sector and innovative SMEs.
Research collaboration projects are planned years in advance; however, the way the UK Government is proceeding with continuing uncertainty over access to Horizon Europe and any UK alternative schemes is already damaging the funding universities are winning in the ongoing programme, Horizon 2020.
We have also already said that to be starting the new UK Government points-based immigration system in parallel with COVID-19 and Brexit challenges is ludicrous. It is a system designed to keep people out, part of the UK Government’s so-called ‘hostile environment’, and this conflicts with another UK Government aim, that the UK is a ‘science superpower’.
Universities need policies to allow them to recruit talent from wherever they need it. The Scottish Government has been unequivocal about the value it places on EU citizens working in Scotland and the need for a visa system to fully support that. The Scottish Government launched the Stay in Scotland campaign in April 2019 to help provide information and support to EU citizens in Scotland who must apply to the EU Settlement Scheme.
Significant gender inequalities still exist in science from school through university and into career choices and science and technology research. What more needs to be done to encourage more women and girls into STEM?
This is a really important issue. I want everyone to be encouraged and supported to pursue STEM study and careers because a knowledge and understanding of STEM is so vital for all of us in our daily lives and to unlock job opportunities.
Unconscious bias and gender stereotyping are significant factors in determining young people’s choices from an early age. Research shows that it is important to tackle these underlying causes of gender imbalance through sustained and systematic action that starts early in the learning journey and continues on through education and into the workplace.
To address this, as part of the STEM strategy, we are funding a dedicated team of improving gender balance and equalities officers within Education Scotland. They are working with schools and early learning settings to provide them with ongoing support in tackling gender bias and improve gender imbalances in participation, subject choice and learner pathways. We are also looking to improve participation in STEM further and higher education courses and apprenticeships, including through college and university gender action plans.
What is your favourite scientific discovery that has come out of Scotland?
I’m a keen cyclist, so it hasn’t escaped me that it was also two Scots, Robert William Thomson from Stonehaven and veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop, who pioneered the pneumatic tyre: Thomson invented it and more than 40 years later Dunlop created the first practical and commercially viable product, after first testing it on his child’s tricycle.
That Scottish knack for invention, innovation and research continues to inspire today across the world, with Scottish links to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the groundbreaking global LIGO gravitational research collaboration.
All over Scotland we have beacons of expertise, whether in universities or in industry, in computer games and precision medicine, in space technology and robotics – the list goes on, and that’s why Scotland is truly a science nation.