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by Chris Marshall
25 October 2022
'We grow them and then they leave': Scotland's science sector is in need of nurturing

James Clerk Maxwell was one of Scotland’s greatest-ever scientific minds

'We grow them and then they leave': Scotland's science sector is in need of nurturing

At the east end of George Street in Edinburgh, stuck somewhat forlornly between a traffic island and some parking spaces, sits a tribute in bronze to one of Scotland’s greatest-ever scientific minds. Perched on a plinth, his slowly oxidising body now covered with a patina of bluey-green, James Clerk Maxwell holds a colour wheel in his hands while his faithful dog sits at his feet.

Despite his statue not being afforded the same prestigious backdrop as Adam Smith or David Hume, who both sit proudly on the Royal Mile, Clerk Maxwell’s contribution to the world around him was no less impressive. Before his death at the age of just 48 in 1879, he carried out pioneering work on electromagnetism which would help pave the way for Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the quantum theory of the twentieth century.

Yet Clerk Maxwell’s scientific contribution was by no means unique among his fellow countrymen and women. The story of human progress which began in the eighteenth century and sped its way into the modern era is synonymous with Scots – names such as Hutton, Somerville, Watt, Fleming, Graham Bell and Logie Baird.

Science and innovation today still rely on great minds, but also on collaboration and, perhaps most importantly, funding. In areas such as digital technology, the life sciences and renewables, Scotland is a genuine world leader. But it is a position which must be nurtured and protected if it is to be maintained.

Published earlier this year, the Scottish Government’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation identifies a number of industries where the country can excel as it meets the challenges of decarbonisation and building a net zero economy. These include space technology, biotechnology, AI, and cyber security. Later this year, the government is expected to publish its 10-year innovation strategy to set out in more detail how this can be achieved.

One of the long-standing problems for Scotland has been an inability to hold onto successful firms which have begun their life here but ultimately outgrow their environment and move to London or elsewhere in the UK.

Professor Iain Gillespie, principal of the University of Dundee, says more must be done to keep successful innovators in Scotland. He cites the example of Exscientia, an AI drug discovery company, which was valued at close to $3bn when it listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange last year. The company was a University of Dundee spin out but is now based in Oxford.

“In some areas we are absolutely number one in the world,” Gillespie says. “No bones about it – Scotland is outstanding at life sciences, genuinely world-leading in many areas. The biggest issue for us is that we can’t keep the companies here in Scotland.

“We grow them and then they leave. Keeping them here so that we get the benefit of these very high-growth companies, these unicorn companies, for our population health and wealth is the biggest challenge for us in our innovation system right now.”

Gillespie, a former microbiologist who has worked for the OECD and the Cabinet Office, says Scottish universities are falling behind their English counterparts due to weaker links with the private sector and declining amounts of funding coming from the Scottish Government. Funding for research comes from a combination of that allocated by the government via the Scottish Funding Council and grants allocated by UK-wide research councils.

“Compared to England, what we’re seeing is a significant real-terms decline in the amount of money we’re getting out of the Scottish Funding Council,” Gillespie says. “It’s been a two per cent increase in cash terms in the last two years. Even before crazy inflation, that was a real-terms decline, whereas England saw an eight per cent increase last year and 10.4 per cent this year.”

Gillespie says financial support is crucial if Scotland is to retain some of the dynamic companies which have left in years gone by.

“There is no secret sauce but there are some relatively small things – they’re not free – that would make a huge difference to be able to turn the brilliant science and the fantastic ideas into spin outs and keep them here and get the benefit for the Scottish economy.”

A key plank of the Scottish Government’s strategy around innovation relates to life sciences, the study of living organisms. The government’s goal is to make Scotland a global base for life sciences research, contributing £8bn a year to the Scottish economy by 2025.

Central to that aim is the Edinburgh bio quarter at Little France, next to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Over the next decade, the bio quarter will transition into Edinburgh’s Health Innovation District, bringing some of the best and brightest minds to Scotland’s capital.

No bones about it – Scotland is outstanding at life sciences, genuinely world-leading in many areas

Alongside the Royal Infirmary, there are centres such as the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Dementia Prevention and the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, founded by JK Rowling in honour of her late mother who died as a result of complications relating to multiple sclerosis (MS). 

Professor Peter Mathieson, principal of the University of Edinburgh, worked as a junior doctor before taking up a series of posts in academia. He says Scotland’s position is built on a credibility that comes from hundreds of years of history but also recent world-leading research.

He cites the example of the UK-wide GenOMICC study, led by the university’s Dr Kenny Baillie, which found genetic links to help explain why some people become seriously ill after contracting Covid.

Mathieson says Brexit has not only made UK-EU research more uncertain but also had the consequence of ending access to the Erasmus scheme, a hugely successful student exchange programme. Its successor, named after pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, is smaller and only allows for UK students going overseas, not a cross-cultural exchange. But Brexit has had implications for the EU too, with all its universities in the worldwide top 50 leaving in one fell swoop.

Mathieson says that despite each pound of university research funding generating eight times that amount for the overall economy, the “perennial underfunding of research” continues to be an issue.

“We’re not just big schools. There’s a whole engine of economic investment – I don’t think many people understand that,” he says. “We’re actually doing stuff that creates new knowledge and creates jobs.

“We have been hugely successful at creating new companies but there’s always a sense that one sign of that success is someone else wanting to be involved in that and buying them out. Scotland is not alone in that but it’s an issue for us.”

A volatile political situation impacts on the ability to attract not only the best talent, but investment too. Even before the recent turmoil caused by the ill-fated “mini” Budget, there had been signs that foreign companies were delaying or cancelling investments in the UK.

Gillespie says universities are still dealing with the impact of Brexit, which has been “challenging”.

“It’s been challenging for exactly the reasons it’s been challenging elsewhere: people and funding. Funding is a straight up and down political issue because the European Commission has decided not to agree to UK association with European funding until the Northern Ireland protocol is dealt with.”

Gillespie says the loss of that funding amounts to over £6bn over five years for the UK higher education sector.

Perhaps understandably, university principals in Scotland tend to look a little uncomfortable when you ask them about the prospect of another referendum and a Yes vote in favour of independence.

Gillespie says it depends what the final settlement looks like and whether Scotland can quickly re-join the EU.

“There could be challenges, but there could be opportunities,” he says.

Mathieson is equally pragmatic.

“There’s obviously a period of uncertainty ahead,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of that at Westminster and in Scotland’s position [within the Union]. I would like to see [that uncertainty] resolved so that we can move on, but the University of Edinburgh existed before the Union and before the EU. We will continue to flourish.”

While questions remain around political stability and funding arrangements, Scottish science and innovation remains at the cutting-edge. From life sciences, to renewables, to AI, Scotland continues to punch well above its weigh internationally – just as it has always done.

Nearly 150 years on from the death of Clerk Maxwell, a new generation of Scottish scientists are making their mark. In a world where everything else looks increasingly uncertain, it’s good to know some things never change.

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