Underperforming Scots

Scotland “desperately needs” a single, central source of strategic thinking on science and technology research.

Scotland “desperately needs” a single, central source of strategic thinking on science and technology research, according to a leading academic.

Professor Bernard King, principal and vice-chancellor of AbertayUniversitysaid that the Scottish Executive should be “ambitious, bold, passionate and confident to create the genuinely joined-up policy structure that can unleash Scotland‘s full potential”.

Speaking at his university’s winter graduation ceremony, Professor King pointed out that independent studies showed Scotland as significantly underperforming in comparison to other small nations. Ireland, for example, had an economic growth rate this year twice Scotland‘s, and 50% more entrepreneurial activity as well.

“Clearly, something in Smart Successful Scotland is not working, or isn’t working as well as it should,” Professor King said.

He said that the Holyrood government needed something equivalent to the UK Office of Science and Technology (OST) that advises the Cabinet at Westminster or Ireland‘s own OST, also advising at cabinet level.

By contrast, the Scottish Executive had at least three separate sources of policy advice on science and research – the Chief Science Adviser and Science Advisory Group under the auspices of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Science Research Group reporting to SEERAD, and the Chief Scientist advising on health and medical research policy.

He also criticised the continued use of the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to dictate research funding in Scotland: “The RAE measures the quality of university research, primarily in terms of the number of academic papers published in prestigious international journals,” he said.

“If a university has a lot of researchers producing papers published internationally, it will score well in the RAE, which means that it will receive a lot of research funding. This will enable it to recruit more researchers, produce more papers, which in turn guarantees it a good score in the next RAE. While this allows universities to compare themselves with each other on the international stage, isn’t there a danger that it is distracting our best and brightest minds away from contributing to the nation’s economic, social and cultural well-being?” he added.

Professor King said that a single policy unit would “determine a clear science and technology strategy that will best suit Scotland‘s needs, and provide guidance and oversight to the implementation of that policy through the work of universities, government agencies and other bodies, for the benefit of the Scottish economy.

He said that the establishment of the new unified Scottish Funding Council to support universities and colleges together, and the current review of the structure of Scottish Enterprise offered a “never-to-be-repeated chance to take a long hard look at how research policy is implemented and how research funding is allocated – in the best interests of Scotland as a whole.”

“It is a challenge for us, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Funding Council. Can we rise to it?” he added.