Academic funding

I am a university student and am considering whether or not to go on into research once I get through this degree of mine. I have several friends and relatives who are university lecturers, researchers or PhD students and I know that the issue of funding is incredibly important to them and something we have discussed in general terms (ie. not specifically related to Scottish independence). I know that some of them are very concerned about the sources of their funding should Scotland become a separate nation but it has always struck me that, for some, there is an element of them being so focussed on their own small area of interest that the rest of life often passes by in a blur; not seeing the wood for all the trees.

In recent days there have been articles in the papers from ‘senior scientists’ claiming that Scotland’s academics are better off remaining within the UK. I completely acknowledge that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the minds of some academics while others simply hold the (completely valid in its own right) view that the UK should remain together regardless. But it is simply not true that a majority of academics are certain that Scottish independence is a bad thing. In fact, Academics for Yes set up their organisation to counter this very idea. [One can reflect on the fact that Academics for Yes is an independent organisation and not a part of Yes Scotland – and therefore free of the ‘party line’ – while Academics Together is an integral part of Better Together, an organisation controlled by the three main parties of Westminster politics.]

One should also consider the fact that many academics, bright and well educated as they are, can be as ignorant as the next person when it comes to issues relating to economics, law, politics, immigration, defence, health, education, etc. etc. unless they have specialised in those fields. And those who have specialised in any of those fields should be the first to acknowledge that opinions among the bona fide experts vary considerably. The inference from the articles posted on Better Together’s site and other articles in the media are that ‘all smart people think that independence is bad and the only reason that all academics are not shouting this loudly is because they are in fear of their jobs’. This is nothing more than scaremongering. If that were in any shape or form true, then Scottish universities would be publicly backing the Scottish Government and not remaining strictly neutral on the issue of independence.

Any academic thinking about this issue has to apply proper rigour to this issue and look to the evidence about where their current funding comes from, where their future funding within the UK is likely to come from (paying full attention on the funding changes that are already under-way within the UK) and where their funding might come from in an independent Scotland. Academics are normal people and capable of making the same irrational decisions based on little evidence as any other group in society. But they are trained to think so I would ask all academic researchers to take a step back from where their gut instinct may be taking them and look for the evidence and consider how their own research interlinks with all other aspects of life in Scotland. This is especially true for those of us who work within any field connected to health and medicine. [Edited to add a link to this article by Wings Over Scotland.]

I noted with interest, but no sense of surprise, that Better Together decided to feature bio-medical scientists in their message. Medicine is a very emotive subject and concerns about the future of health care in Scotland is something every member of society cares about. It is the one area of science that non-scientists are really concerned about because we all understand that modern medicine is highly technological. But what many people fail to see – and I am looking at you, bio-medical scientists working on the latest wonder drug or treatment method – is that the single biggest factor to influence a person’s health is their relative wealth. If you are poor you are much more likely to have major health problems and live shorter lives than if you are relatively well off. In Scotland we have too many poor people and our health problems reflect this. So, instead of asking whether or not funding is going to be available to develop new treatments within Scottish universities and research institutions, please ask yourself if a Scotland that remains within the UK is going to have more or fewer people living in poverty, whether or not prescriptions will still be free to all (especially those poorest people) and whether or not the health of the general population of Scotland is likely to improve or get worse under the auspices of Westminster governments who focus primarily (if not purely) on the concerns of the relatively affluent of ‘middle England’.

But while we are on the subject, academics are not all scientists nor is science (and I write this as a scientist myself) the most important area of intellectual thought. The whole concept of democracy is not ‘scientific’ though without it we wouldn’t enjoy the sort of society we wish to live in. Neither is law, but it is equally important. Economics (despite the claims of some economists) is not a science either, though it underpins everything we do. Literature, art and music are not scientific but the very ideas that they express are fundamental to how we live our lives. I could go on but I will leave you with some letters written by academics to The Herald today (24/5/14):

Intrinsic scholastic values are behind our success in science

I NOTE that Project Fear (Bio­­scientists’ branch) is alive and well in your pages (“Leading scientists warn Yes vote will hit research”, The Herald, May 23, and Letters, May 23).
We are reminded that “Scottish institutions have done extremely well when competing for UK Research Council grants; for example, in 2012-13 they won £257m (13.1%) of the funding available – a remarkable achievement for a country with just 8.4% of the UK population”.
They then immediately ignore their eminent scientific standing and fundamental training, and go on to confuse cause and effect: “If Scotland were to withdraw from the UK and create its own Scottish Research Council our research community would be denied its present ability to win proportion­ately more grant funding than the country contributes to a common research pool.”
The ability to win such funding is not a function of the largesse of the UK Research Councils, it is rather a consequence of the quality of Scottish science, which in spite of the intrinsic dominance of the golden (Oxbridge/London) triangle and its inbuilt biases, nevertheless wins these funds.
The reasons for this may not be obvious to those who have little knowledge of Scotland’s intellectual and university history, but for those us who have studied these matters, or imbibed from the font of the demo­cratic intellect from our Scottish primary school days, the reasons are quite obvious and intrinsic to our sense of Scottishness: that in Scotland education is valued for its own sake, and as a consequence has always claimed higher esteem and a share of national resources than elsewhere on these islands. It is because of scholastic values, not in spite of them, that “useful knowledge” drove the Scottish economy: disinterested curiosity is the parent of discovery; business-driven “impact” targets are its executioners.
Thus in Scotland, it can be argued plausibly (and indeed was argued convincingly by George Elder Davie) that Enlightenment values (from which science flows) permeated the five ancient Scottish universities earlier and more rapidly, with England and Wales retaining the ecclesiastical obscurantist model in its meagre two ancient institutions right into the 18th century. Meanwhile, in Scotland medicine, science and economics flourished – and engineering gained a substantial foothold, much earlier than in England and Wales.
That inheritance persists, and it is this rather than any largesse from Research Councils UK (RCUK) that explains our current success.
But this success, and the vital Scottish nature of our universities that has engendered it, is indeed under attack – but the danger resides elsewhere than independence.
I am looking at the most recent letter from Graham Raike, chairman of the Orwellianly entitled “RCUK Efficiency and Reform Group”. This informs me of “outline plans for the extension of the RCUK Efficiency programme into the 2015/16 financial year: ” The current efficiency programme runs to 2014/15, however the Research Councils will need to demonstrate continued efficiencies both in cash terms as well as evidence of cultural change”.
Decoded, this means that the already brutal real-terms cuts to UK science funding are to be accelerated for the present funding year. This is bad enough. But the price of RCUK largesse is to be “evidence of cultural change”. For the uninitiated, this means further imposition of the neoliberal agenda that is commodi­fying science and determining its value to society (and worthiness to be funded) largely in terms of a narrow estimation of its potential for economic impact.
The real danger to Scottish universities is not from independence, but from remaining within the declining, neoliberal UK.
Dr John O’Dowd,

IT is with great disappointment that I read the open letter by 14 of our senior scientists, including their complaint that our scientific associations will not provide unequivocal support to their personal opinions.
In my research career, I received funding from UK Research Councils, UK charities, the EU, the United States, international charities, Nato and industry. Only the former can be conceivably affected by indepen­dence. UK charities raise much of their funding in Scotland and will continue to do so (re-classified as international charities for those who think Scotland will be a foreign country) with funding flowing based on the quality of research proposals.
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation. The Medical Research Council is established by a Royal Charter, which states: “The council may pursue its objects in Our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or elsewhere.” It would likely be problematical for either of these organisations to positively discriminate against Scottish research applications.
It is particularly disheartening that some of the cream of our scientific establishment seem to be placing their vote on the best way forward for five million Scots, solely on the basis of perceived self-interest. Their children and great grandchildren will not all be scientists.
Prof (Emeritus) WJ Harris,

I WAS more than a little surprised to read that a group of scientists is advocating that things stay the way they are at present in relation to research funding. I only hope they don’t advocate such a hypothesis of “things are fine the way we are and anyway we can’t find an answer on our own” in front of current and future students. The exceptional placings of Scottish universities in the QS World Ranking system and the high regard in which our universities are held throughout the world is more likely to come under risk from such pronouncements of negativity and stasis than any Yes vote.
Dr Graeme Finnie (Literature not Science),


About Hugh Wallace

Soldier, sailor, policeman, engineer, scientist, democrat, socialist, environmentalist, advocate of Scottish Independence
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