Getting Results: Our world-leading research will drive sustainable growth

To mark a new report showcasing the role of Scottish universities in economic and social recovery, we’re publishing a series of blogs from Principals highlighting how higher education will deliver for Scotland over the next five years. Every day this week we’ll publish a blog from a Principal looking at a different area of contribution. Our first blog comes from Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal of the University of St Andrews, who talks about the vital role of university research in Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. 

University research transforms our future. Its impact can be seen prominently in the technologies that we benefit from every day and we have seen a powerful demonstration of its value over the last year in the remarkable development of covid vaccines. The success of the vaccine development in the UK illustrates the point that remarkable breakthroughs and world-reaching impact rest on many years of excellent fundamental work; the mobilisation of that; and maintaining partnerships locally and internationally across academia and the public and private sectors.

These same foundations are evident in the contribution of university research and innovation to social and economic recovery.  The response will demand an intensification of support for research, focused on the challenges we face locally and globally such as climate change; healthy ageing; and harnessing the power of data. Partnership with the private, public and third sectors will be complemented by universities increasingly bringing multi-disciplinary teams together.

Our excellent research base in Scotland, and its partnerships across the UK and beyond, both support and directly benefit our communities. Pneumagen, a new company which recently spun-out of my own university in St Andrews, is developing a novel intra-nasal spray to offer protection against viruses like Covid and influenza. Similarly, Aberdeen’s development of a new medical imaging scanner, called Fast Field Cycling MRI, will ensure earlier diagnosis of disease, improving patient outcomes.

Our research projects have significant economic impact in their own right and Scotland should be ambitious to secure a strong share of the almost doubling of R&D investment by UK Government to £22bn per annum by 2024-25. We want to see our industry partnerships grow too, indeed much of that investment is likely to be focussed on collaborative, challenge-based work. The sector currently works with 20,000 Scottish organisations each year on innovation projects. At St Andrews, we’re working with industry, Government, colleagues at the University of Strathclyde, and other partners to develop and test Scotland’s first hydrogen-powered train, supporting international efforts to address the climate crisis by greening our transport infrastructure. Another example, and a product of Strathclyde’s research excellence, is a collaboration between the University and Aker Offshore wind to pioneer a novel process for the recycling of old wind turbine blades which are otherwise forecast to generate two million tons of non-recyclable waste by 2030.

That scale of partnership across the university sector is already something to be proud of but the need across Scotland’s economy is now significant with many organisations requiring to innovate in a changed market. Our research strengths are also a proven magnet to inward investors and in attracting entrepreneurs. We will need new approaches to working with government to bring further success in what is a competitive, global setting.

The last year has seen significant challenge but it has also provided a catalyst to change. University research continues to both deliver that change and guide us through it.