What next for research in post-Sturgeon Scotland?

Professor Iain Gillespie, Principal of the University of Dundee and our Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee Convener penned some thoughts for Research Professional about what should happen in research under a new First Minister following Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to resign as First Minister.

Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation as First Minister is one of those points in the cycle of things that prompts the question “what next?”.

Whilst it marks a change in leadership and not government, the person that occupies the role of First Minister has an undeniable impact on the direction of policy, the priorities the Government takes forward and the resources attached to those.

Over the years, several policy agendas have been described as a defining priority of the First Minister. Whilst one of her priorities, widening access to higher education to underrepresented students, meant there was a shared commitment between the First Minister and universities, it is fair to say that research, development and innovation was not as close to her heart. Ms. Sturgeon’s successor will also have their own passion projects, specific areas of policy or opportunities for Scotland that personally excite them and that stand slightly above the full spectrum of Government business.

So, the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon and the prospect of Scotland’s first new leader for eight years is an interesting time to speculate on the prominence that research could have, going forward.

Early reflections on Ms. Sturgeon’s legacy will also prompt SNP contenders for the role of First Minister to consider what impact they would want to have. The set of issues waiting in their in-tray is considerable. Amongst them is the need to catalyse stronger, inclusive economic growth in Scotland. Universities are a huge asset and willing partner to assist the next First Minister to drive greater progress.

Regardless of a change of First Minister, we expect continuity from the Scottish Government in a number of areas. University research is already a prominent feature of Scottish Government strategies, some of them published very recently. It is not likely we will see a change in the architecture of strategy such as the National Strategy for Economic Transformation; and the Inward Investment and Export Plans. Universities occupy a central part of the narrative of those strategies so we will be hoping that stays the same. Scotland’s R&D community is also expecting an Innovation Strategy fairly imminently. That has been the subject of considerable consultation and is fairly well developed at this point. One can’t imagine the change in leader will signal a significant change in direction here.

However, there are opportunities for the Scottish Government to connect its narrative to action and investment in more meaningful ways, if the next First Minister were so inclined.

There’s much in these strategies that points to expansion of existing routes to impact and some interesting new ideas to be pursued. There is also new policy thinking, and potential investment, in entrepreneurship, company formation and growth. There are new ideas on city / region growth, drawing on areas of stablished research strength in Scotland, including collaborative initiatives in how we foster and secure inward investment. So, whilst strategy might not change significantly, we might see adjustments in policy and decisions beneath it and here there are opportunities which merit consideration.

Firstly, there needs to be a greater concentration on the foundations for the research base itself. Strategies acknowledge a strong research base as key but are insufficiently attentive to the realities of sustaining it in the face of global competition. There is already strong evidence of the need for far greater focus and action on our research base, where support for its sustenance is rapidly falling behind other Home Nations and our competitors.

Recent years have seen a decline in the share of Research Council funding won by Scotland’s universities. From a peak of 15.7% of the UK total in 2012-13, it fell to 13.4% in 2020-21. This needs to be cause for concern. As our Funding Council reflected in 2021, in its Review of Tertiary Education and Research:

“the trend indicates that Scotland’s research base is increasingly being out-performed by other nations of the UK in terms of our Research Council funding share and we should consider whether we are positioned appropriately to win new types of funding flowing from UKRI”.

The response to these challenges and the route back to punching above our weight as a nation is more nuanced than simply injections of more funding into core grants. However, funding does ultimately matter a great deal and the ability to compete successfully within a UK landscape for research grants matters too. It is concerning that the Scottish Government has not used Barnett consequentials to match the profile of investment flowing to institutions in England through Research England.

Whilst budget decisions would have been difficult for any First Minister of any Government in the context of current public finances, the whispers are that Scotland’s last budget round and the spending decisions in it was very much the decision-making of the First Minister, more so even than the Finance Secretary. Looking longer-term, the broadly cash flat trajectory of research funding for Scotland’s universities over the last decade not only diminishes the contribution that the sector can make economically, culturally and societally, it also diminishes universities’ direct impacts. Work by London Economics shows that the sector in Scotland delivers an 8:1 economic impact for every £1 invested in research.

There is a case then – and potential opportunity for – a reappraisal of funding policy for our research base, alongside implementation of the new initiatives in the Scottish Government’s economic strategies. Indeed, the best delivery of those strategies is dependent on such a reappraisal.

Secondly, and relatedly, strategy and policy should give a much stronger focus to enabling universities to leverage not just Innovate UK resources but the wide breadth of industry and charity partnership. Scotland’s business base is very different to that of the rest of the UK. Universities can and need to be more of a catalytic force, in support of innovation and investment for the business community and for regional growth. But we need to get the policy support structures right. As an example, Scotland’s universities are far more likely to be the lead partner in successful project bids to Innovate UK – at around 30% of the time – than other parts of the UK. In south-east England that figure is only 10%. As Scottish Government policy seeks stronger growth in our economy, such policy must be tailored to local economic circumstances and fully enable universities to play the leading role where needed.

Ms. Sturgeon’s successor has three years until Scots next go to the polls. That is a good amount of time to make a mark and get some significant policy wins behind them, against which to be judged by the electorate. Research, development, innovation and enterprise have the potential to play into this political context in a powerful way. It will be our job as universities to demonstrate our worth, show what we can deliver and make the case for the right funding and policy structures to the next First Minister.