Scotland's Huge Role in Science and Engineering, by Patrick Harkness

Scientific and engineering research in Scotland plays a huge role because of links with the UK's global infrastructure, says Patrick Harkness

Scotland may be a small country, but with the UK’s global infrastructure at our disposal we have a positive influence far beyond our own borders. This is especially true in the field of scientific and engineering research, where Scottish developments have played a huge role in building the modern world we live in today and which holds such hope for tomorrow. With a decisive vote to preserve these networks less than a year old, we can now look at how we can use our renewed links to go forward together for the good of Scotland, for the rest of the UK, and indeed for the wider world.

Perhaps one of the most significant findings by a scientist from Scotland has been the discovery of Penicillin, the remarkable agent which destroys bacterial cells but leaves human tissue unharmed, saving countless lives all over the world. Alexander Fleming, from Ayrshire, was supported by the UK’s Medical Research Council while he made his discoveries in his London laboratory. But it is not just medicine: at the other end of the research spectrum the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, for example, assembles the world-leading telescopes that allow us to explore further into space.

Naturally such shared infrastructure is a two-way street, with Scotland supporting similar investment across the rest of the UK to the benefit of all. The world-leading Diamond Light Source, in England, produces the synchrotron radiation we can use to understand everything from ancient manuscripts to jet engines but, crucially, it is part of a shared network that belongs to all four countries of the United Kingdom. And it is by working together, by pooling resources, that we are all able to have an even wider global presence, whether that is the British Antarctic Survey’s field stations that played such an important role in alerting us to the problems in the ozone layer, to our own Alexander Fleming’s Medical Research Council which to this day operates life-saving facilities in West Africa.

Of course countries of Scotland’s size, and even smaller, can also have a positive effect on the world. Norway’s polar programme is excellent, and builds on Norway’s specialist expertise in the polar regions. But it is as part of the UK that we can go further because we are not limited to what we can achieve with our own resources, or to our European returns. This is because, even though Scotland’s receipt of the UK’s research budget typically runs well above our per-capita share, that budget is still vast compared to the budgets available to other countries of Scotland’s size. When someone in Scotland proposes a truly excellent idea, the limit on what they can achieve is not set by the Scottish budget, but rather the United Kingdom’s: one of the world’s largest and most stable economies.

However, there is more to research than money. Having unfettered access to a greater pool of scientific expertise is, of course, hugely beneficial, but it is not just the scientists themselves that matter. The support of a larger population in general is equally important because, just to return to medicine for an example, clinical trials often require a wide range of participants to form valid conclusions. As we are part of the wider UK this is obviously straightforward, with no need to duplicate funding arrangements, ethical approval and medical histories across multiple jurisdictions, and therefore no need to waste money on pointless management. We can spend more of the money on science, and make more progress as a result.

Spending more money on science is, of course, something that all countries would like to do. But words alone cost, and achieve, very little. The ability to spend more, on the other hand, does something really rather special, and it is not simply a matter of multiplication. With a larger budget we can afford to take risks, and rather than sticking to our specialist fields of expertise we can try new, exciting and different things. This is only possible because each project is a smaller aspect of our overall programme, and therefore each and every project does not have the same need to succeed. It is only by daring to fail that we can make the breakthroughs that will change all our tomorrows in a fundamental and positive way.  This is what Scotland, and the rest of the UK, can do together. It is not to be sneered at by those who would not dare at all.

Against such a backdrop, it is disappointing that we have an SNP Government that still preaches a bitter message of division, nationalism and misguided self-interest. There could scarcely be a better example than the very recent decision to ban the modified crops that could help alleviate world hunger because the SNP’s Richard Lochhead chose to see no demand from Scottish consumers. But such parochialism is not the future. We decided only last year that we would not build any more barriers between our people, just to invent new workarounds and call them progress. Instead we are going to go forwards together, and make real, actual progress, for the greater good of all.

So now, it would be great if the SNP could finally drop their grievance routine and get on board. It’s not 2014 any more, we have made our choice, and we have a future to build. Together.

Patrick Harkness is a Chartered Engineer, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, and a past co-chair of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland.

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