Science Strategy for Scotland

Science Strategy for Scotland

Science Strategy for Scotland

Summary

The Strategy implemented by the above framework should encompass all the streams of knowledge and expertise from the SET base:

  • in supporting and promoting industrial and economic development;
  • in supporting government policies in health, education, environment, etc; and
  • in providing SET-related advice to legislators and citizens.

Science and the Economy

A new Strategy needs to give continuing, indeed increased, priority to education and training at all levels. Efforts to commercialise the research base need to continue and Scottish businesses, particularly the SMEs, should be encouraged to use the institutions to greater effect. Strong interaction between the different parts of the SET base will be crucial in linking strategic and applied research to its industrial application. A Scottish Science Strategy should take steps to ensure that the many routes by which the public purse funds the SET base and its exploitation are managed in such a way as to maximise opportunities for efficient integration, and that public/private partnerships are facilitated.

Science and Government Policy

The SET resources of the Scottish Executive will be limited in comparison with the diversity of scientific knowledge relevant to important issues of public policy. It will be important therefore to make use of the wider SET base in gleaning policy advice. Over-compartmentalisation between government departments and between scientific disciplines, and lack of co-ordination across the wider SET base, will frustrate an effective, integrated use of the science base in policy formulation.

Science and the Public

The scientific community has a responsibility to communicate discoveries to society more effectively. It is therefore evident that much greater effort should be made to further public understanding of science (PUS) through emphasis on training sciencecorrespondents and liaison officers, resourcing PUS projects and through greater use of public consultation exercises and science centres.

Science and Education

Scientists and engineers involved in areas such as IT are becoming the bed-rock of a growing Scottish economy. Perhaps greater flexibility in remuneration arrangements flowing from implementation of the McCrone report could be used to improve the quality of the science, engineering and technology teaching force.

The Science Base in Scotland

The key to retaining the flexibility to exploit such opportunities lies in maintaining a broad capability in basic science which continuously re-synthesises specific knowledge in the form of general understanding with broad applicability. Excellence, recognised by peer review judged against international standards, is a prerequisite of an effective SET base. There is no trade off between relevance and excellence. Only excellent SET is relevant.

The UK and International Context

At the UK level, the Scottish SET base must remain an integral part of the UK system of basic research. Its scale benefits Scotland and the other regions of the UK by stimulating international competitiveness, through the inherent flexibility of a large system to adapt to change whilst focusing major efforts in areas of current need and the capacity to attract and retain scientists of international calibre. At the European level, engagement with evolving European institutions should continue to be a high priority. Realising these objectives will require enhanced co-ordination both within Scotland and with the rest of the UK.

Development and Implementation

A science led independent Advisory Board should be set up whose remit would be to advise on strategies for i) the effective integration of research within Scotland as part of the UK SET base; and ii) the efficient exploitation of the SET base to the benefit of society.

Responsibilities should be embedded within the Scottish Executive which should permit i) day-to-day implementation of the strategy of the Scottish Executive and the Advisory Board for the SET base; ii) co-ordination of SET advice to ministers; iii) representation of Scottish interests on UK co-ordinating bodies and relevant DTI/ OST committees; and in the EU arena; and iv) a trans-Departmental remit for SET within the Scottish Executive to ensure best use of resources and the cross-disciplinary and cross-sector integration of research and advice when appropriate.

These functions should command professional credibility within the UK SET community, with users and with the public, by creating an appropriate post to be filled by a scientist of international repute.

Science Strategy for Scotland

Introduction

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive Enterprise & Lifelong Learning Department's consultation into a Science Strategy for Scotland. As Scotland's National Academy, whose aim since 1783 has been the advancement of learning and useful knowledge, the RSE is well placed to offer an independent view on the issue of a science strategy. The Society's Fellowship includes distinguished individuals drawn from Science, Medicine, Arts & Letters, Engineering & Technology, the Professions, Industry and Commerce.

The development of a science policy for economic and social benefit is an important issue, and an explicit policy for Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) was one of the key recommendations of the joint Royal Society of London and RSE study on Devolution and Science. The consultation document clearly identified the questions that need to be addressed in formulating a science strategy for Scotland. However, there was an overall lack of vision and the document failed to present an adequate plan to implement a proposed strategy

The areas identified within the consultation document are addressed below:

Science and the Economy

The RSE strongly supports the vision of Scotland as a small country but with a global position as a key player in the increasingly knowledge-based world economy. Achieving this, however, will require a strong innovative business culture, with effective cross-fertilisation of ideas and people between industry and academia. In developing a strategy for science and the economy, the following key elements should be included:

A well-educated and trained work-force
Lifelong learning is central to current Government strategy with considerable emphasis being placed on Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and the provision of suitable courses in both further and higher education establishments. A new Strategy needs to give continuing, indeed increased, priority to education and training at all levels. Response to the challenge posed by economic change in a highly competitive global economy depends on having skilled researchers, managers and workers. IT skills are particularly important for workers at all levels and this calls for substantial investment in IT in schools, colleges and universities. Within the context of the Scottish economy, where there are relatively few large industrial companies, it will also be essential to provide positive incentives to both small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) (and 'one-person' businesses) to take advantage of such facilities.

Knowledge Resources
In Scotland we are fortunate in having an outstanding, internationally recognised research base within our higher education institutions. Among the most important debates in recent years were those concerned with the links between science and wealth creation and between academia and industry. The RSE is committed to promoting the economic well-being of Scotland by encouraging closer links between the country's research base and its commercial sector. This already happens in a number of ways, including supporting the Government's Foresight programmes in Scotland, and by undertaking work leading to, and in support of, Technology Ventures: a national strategy aimed at increasing the volume of Scottish-based businesses exploiting Scotland’s world class science base. Improving commercialisation within the science base continues to be a key issue.

Efforts to commercialise the research base need to continue and Scottish businesses, particularly the SMEs, should be encouraged to use the institutions to greater effect. It should be recognised, however, that this will not always involve exploitation of the results of research within Scotland, though clearly that is to be preferred. The reality is, however, that industry within Scotland is not always in a position to pick up a piece of research and run with it. Spin-outs may also not be practical in all cases, though again the spin-out route has many attractions. In some cases the international quality and complexity of the research in our institutions means that it can only be exploited by international companies. Collaborative research with such companies can bring real benefits to the institutions, and to Scotland, and improve Scotland’s standing as a centre of excellence at an international level.

Support to foster and exploit an enterprise culture
The universities and other providers of higher education have a crucial role to play in producing the graduates with the skills and entrepreneurial flair essential to the creation of wealth in the 21st century. In addition, the provision of incentives for people to take risks, (including direct grants, low interest loans, well-serviced locations for growing companies in attractive surroundings with strong supporting infrastructure), are also important.

Industry Pull
Over the last few years, considerable emphasis has been placed on encouraging commercialisation of research-generated ideas. However, one of the major weaknesses of the Scottish economy in this respect is the absence of locally-based businesses capable of developing such ideas. The model currently is very much one of higher education institutions (HEIs) 'pushing' research findings out into the community rather than industry 'pulling' such ideas and actively developing them. Scotland does not lack 'institutional push'; it does, however, lack 'industry pull'. Of the top ten publicly-quoted companies in Scotland, five are either banks or utilities and as a country, we have no major directly research-dependent industries.

A key objective must be to increase the number of companies performing effective R&D in Scotland. This is a long-term goal. Therefore, while efforts to attract inward investment should continue, these should be matched with a comparable development of Scotland's indigenous industry, whilst recognising that building an R&D culture and capability is both risky and expensive for smaller companies and is, therefore, unlikely to happen without significant public investment.

Targeting Investment in SET
There will be a natural tendency to focus attention on enhanced economic exploitation of the existing, internationally competitive SET base in Scotland. If it is insensitively exploited, there is a risk not only that the creativity and excellence of the science base will deteriorate, but that the economic benefits which it currently brings to Scotland will decrease. A rapidly evolving knowledge-based economy depends upon skilled people and perennial up-dating of the skills base. It is not obvious, however, that a greater degree of strategic manpower planning in higher and further education by their funding agencies is the correct response. The rapid rate of technological change, often in unforeseen directions, and the rapid obsolescence of existing technologies argue for an education which inculcates a capacity for broad scientific understanding coupled with on-the-job specific training as the most flexible approach to training.

It is important, therefore, that the SET base is exploited sustainably, and that enhanced economic benefits are reaped from it whilst maintaining its breadth, its capacity for creativity and innovation and its attractiveness to scientists of the highest calibre. The market for the good scientists is competitive and international, and they can easily be lost from a badly managed system. It will be vital to achieve an appropriate balance of resourcing between basic science and the promotion of application, with mechanisms to sustain both.

Strong interaction between the different parts of the SET base will be crucial in linking strategic and applied research to its industrial application, and a strong 'pull' from users is the best means of ensuring that the SET base is effectively exploited. A Scottish Science Strategy should take steps to ensure that the many routes by which the public purse funds the SET base and its exploitation are managed in such a way as to maximise opportunities for efficient integration, and that public/private partnerships are facilitated. For these to be effective, there must be mutual understanding of the objectives and strategies of the different partners and awareness of national and European policies and opportunities.

Science and Government Policy

Given the importance of SET to Scotland's future well-being and prosperity, it will be essential that good, high quality advice is readily available to Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Parliament and senior members of the Executive. However, faced with the vast burgeoning of scientific knowledge and technology, the resources directly available to a Scottish Executive alone cannot reasonably be expected to fulfil this role. An independent Advisory Board should therefore be set up whose remit would include the co-ordination of SET advice to Ministers (see Development and Implementation below).

It will also be important:

  • that the Scottish Executive does not seek unnecessarily to recreate existing UK capabilities in Scotland. It should seek best quality advice irrespective of its location, and should use the wider resources of the UK and international SET base, making full use of UK committees and Royal Commissions and influence their agendas;
  • that contracts for research in support of evidence-based policies should be placed wherever it can be done best, and that the research should be subjected to high standards of peer review;
  • that the policy making process is separated from the scientific evidence which is taken into account in formulating it, and that the evidence should, for important issues, be made publicly available in plain English;
  • that procedures are adopted which ensure that public values are taken into account during the stage of policy formulation;
  • that a process of foresight is promoted which identifies difficult science-based issues before they become matters of acute controversy (e.g. nuclear waste, over-use of antibiotics), so that authoritative evaluations of the underlying science and its uncertainties can be published in plain English, to avoid hurried policy decisions being made at times of acute controversy;
  • that the social sciences are employed to understand better how business, universities, government agencies and research institutions can interact more effectively and how public values can be included in the formation and implementation of policy.
  • that there is effective representation of Scottish interests on UK co-ordinating bodies and relevant DTI / OST committees, such as the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee; and in the EU arena

The SET resources of the Scottish Executive will be limited in comparison with the diversity of scientific knowledge relevant to important issues of public policy. It will be important therefore to make use of the wider SET base in gleaning policy advice. Over-compartmentalisation between government departments and between scientific disciplines, and lack of co-ordination across the wider SET base, will frustrate an effective, integrated use of the science base in policy formulation.

Parliamentary Advice
The Westminster government already has in place mechanisms to provide much of the support and advice necessary and it is likely to be equally important that the Scottish Parliament, with its unicameral structure and its commitment to an open, inclusive style of operation, has its own sources of advice to address problems with a specific Scottish dimension. The Royal Society of Edinburgh regularly provides advice to the Westminster Parliament, particularly through submissions to Select Committees and this role will continue. It would be natural for the Scottish Parliament to look to the RSE, as Scotland's National Academy, as a leading source of independent advice, particularly on matters concerned with Scottish interests. The multi-disciplinary base and the broad compass of membership make the RSE an ideal reference point for many of these issues and it is important that a strong interactive relationship is developed between the Society and both Parliament and the Government in Scotland.

Science and the Public

Scientific advances are now so rapid and sophisticated that there is a danger that they will be moving so far ahead of society's understanding that scientists and technologists will be viewed as part of a powerful and dangerous power structure that needs to be curbed. In this situation those individuals in the media who have the responsibility of translating new developments for society's appraisal have an almost impossible task given the demands of the public (and editors) for an eye-catching story. In addition, the scientific community has a responsibility to communicate discoveries to society more effectively. It is therefore evident that much greater effort should be made to further public understanding of science (PUS) through emphasis on training science correspondents and liaison officers, resourcing PUS projects and through greater use of public consultation exercises and "science centres", for example through the Scottish Science Trust, where information and speakers can be made available for community meetings on areas of concern.

Public Confidence
There is a risk that anti-science attitudes propagated in the media and elsewhere will limit the range of options available for the commercial exploitation of opportunities in some science-based areas. An educated and informed electorate will respond to science-based policy decisions within the national political arena provided that Government and the industry concerned are prepared to adopt an ‘open information’ approach. In Britain the Freedom of Information Bill should address this issue in part. Public caution is understandable and desirable but present attitudes to scientific advances and their commercial exploitation are rarely based on rational appraisal and often exhibit a failure in popular understanding of risk.

Securing Public Debate
There are various techniques for engaging the informed general public in debates about the future of science and technology. Consensus conferencing is one of these but it has been tried on a major scale only once in Britain. Citizen juries have recently emerged as a powerful tool for identifying community views on both the setting of environmental targets and how they should be achieved, even for very complex issues. This technique has been used to look at community views on community forests in the Borders and on strategies to improve air quality in Edinburgh. Other countries use these approaches regularly – Denmark and the Netherlands are two examples – and link them directly with the political process. In Scotland the Consultative Steering Group for the Scottish Parliament has recommended that these techniques should be pursued in order to widen the base of participation in political decisions. This degree of openness to more imaginative approaches should be welcomed and encouraged. Events involving senior school pupils building on the concept of consensus conferencing, by organisations such as the British Association and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, represent useful initiatives at developing public awareness of science issues.

The Presentation of Science
There is also scope for improving the presentation of science by scientists. In the media there appears to be a view that professional presenters rather than scientists should usually head up science programmes. This often distances the scientist from the audience as someone who needs interpretation because he or she is incapable of communicating directly with people. There are scientists who could be proficient given some expert advice plus some experience, and there is a growing realisation amongst scientists of the importance of such work. The decision to allocate a portion of research grants to presenting results to the public is a step in the right direction. Interviews with scientists on programmes such as Horizon do, however, help to prove that scientists are normal people with a dedication to their subject, rather than a race apart.

In terms of the media, debates on scientific issues are often confrontational, leaving no room for the middle ground where the truth usually lies, and there is little attempt to present reasoned arguments. To help producers in identifying potential programme content, it would be worth considering the formation of a network of public broadcasters throughout the country who could forge links with scientists and engineers in the leading learned societies and professional bodies. This would be of great benefit to the general audience who would be presented with wider choices and a growing capacity to understand the risks and uncertainties involved. Greater emphasis could also be made on training science correspondents and liaison officers for the media and Government.

Science and Education

Science Teaching in Schools
Scientists and engineers involved in areas such as IT are becoming the bed-rock of a growing Scottish economy. There is, however, a fall-off in interest and attainment at upper primary and lower secondary school levels but the underlying reasons are open to debate. The remedy certainly depends on good and enthusiastic teaching ofscience in primary and secondary schools. Part of the problem arises from the need to improve science teaching in secondary schools (although there are some notable exceptions). This in turn is a situation which has arisen through science teaching in schools having, over a good many years, appeared as an unattractive job option compared with other openings for graduates in science. Perhaps greater flexibility in remuneration arrangements flowing from implementation of the McCrone report could be used to improve the quality of the science and technology teaching force. For example,

Better training in science for qualifying primary teachers.

In-service training to bring present primary teachers to a level where they feel confident and enthusiastic about science teaching. This may need to be by means of courses during vacations with some additional financial incentive.

Updated, professional development courses for science teachers in secondary schools, possibly during vacations with financial incentives.

Differential salaries for teachers of science could also be considered.

Bursaries might also be offered to encourage better uptake of science and technology among pupils and students and influencing parents will be an important element of any initiative. More posts in specialist science teaching, less bureaucratic load and smaller classes would also make the profession more attractive and the teaching better.

Interest in Science
A key question has to be "How can we succeed in attracting more young people into science"? One method that is perhaps worth considering is the organisation of talks by successful young industrialists who have become millionaires or even billionaires through the exploitation of science. We have a number of these in Scotland and an even greater number in the UK as a whole. By this means the perspective of young people can be altered substantially.

The importance of science literacy is not only crucial in ensuring informed public debate on scientific issues but also in providing the necessary flow of science students into the university. Stimulation of a greater awareness of the employment opportunities and of an improvement of the perceived status of graduates in this sector is an important challenge for both society at large and government in particular.

The Science Base in Scotland

Research Priorities
Basic research is the bedrock on which the ability of the SET base to address immediate and long-term needs rests. It must be characterised by focus in areas of science opportunity and need, but also diversity which gives flexibility to address new opportunities. The infrastructure costs of modern science are very large, and it would be prohibitively expensive even in a relatively substantial economy like that of the UK to maintain a world-class capability across all fields. Decisions therefore have to be made about investment priorities. However, they must not lead to over-specialisation which reduces the capacity to exploit unexpected innovations. The key to retaining the flexibility to exploit such opportunities lies in maintaining a broad capability in basic science which continuously re-synthesises specific knowledge in the form of general understanding with broad applicability.

The SET base must aspire to excellence by international standards. Liberalisation of global markets requires that successful business should be internationally competitive. It is increasingly free to locate itself where circumstances are favourable. For knowledge-based industries, this means in locations where there is an excellent SET base and a technically highly skilled population, which itself is part of the output of the SET base. Excellence, recognised by peer review judged against international standards, is therefore a prerequisite of an effective SET base. There is an analogous requirement for excellence in the SET which underpins Government policy, where public scrutiny is so great that only excellence is acceptable. There is no trade off between relevance and excellence. Only excellent SET is relevant.

Collaboration
Collaboration often does not work well when it is imposed, but usually flourishes when it is encouraged and only works well when the academic and managerial basis is well founded. Collaborations with people or groups elsewhere in the UK or abroad are equally important as those within Scotland. Effective networking organisations will be essential in sharing ideas and promoting collaborations, and the RSE would be able to assist in this capacity.

Career Paths
With many top young scientists on short-term contracts, few can spend enough time in any one research area to become world leaders. To generate innovation and enthusiasm it is imperative that research talent is fostered and recognised. However good and balanced the research programmes may be, the need to recruit and keep dedicated staff is essential.

The UK and International Context

UK Linkage
At the UK level, the Scottish SET base must remain an integral part of the UK system of basic research. Its scale benefits Scotland and the other regions of the UK by stimulating international competitiveness, through the inherent flexibility of a large system to adapt to change whilst focusing major efforts in areas of current need and the capacity to attract and retain scientists of international calibre. Scotland should remain a committed part of the UK Research Council system, continue to be assessed through a UK-wide RAE system of peer review, and ensure that financial and organisational barriers to full integration in the UK SET base are minimised.

There is a minimum efficient scale of scientific community and of resourcing below which it is difficult to sustain an internationally competitive basic research capability. It is, therefore, important that devolution does not lead to fragmentation of basic research in the UK, and that basic SET in Scotland remains well integrated within the UK system as part of an evolving European SET base. It is important that the Research Councils, which are reserved UK institutions in the Scotland Act, retain a UK-wide remit and that Scotland continues to compete UK-wide for funding. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has a key role to play in this in maintaining the competitiveness of Scottish institutions and enabling them to continue attracting and retaining outstanding scientists.

International Context
At the European level, UK scientists benefit from the Framework Research Programmes which fund joint work between European scientists and have enabled world class groups to be created, and from world-class visiting researchers from other countries. The European Union has major responsibilities for policy for economic competition and regulation in many areas of science-led policy in member states. Although a well articulated European science base does not yet exist, Scottish engagement with evolving European institutions should continue to be a high priority.

Realising these objectives will require enhanced co-ordination both within Scotland and with the rest of the UK.

Consideration should also be given to the role of Scottish science in the promotion of Scotland as a vibrant economy and in the promotion of Scottish exports, education and training. Actively engaging international bodies such as the British Council in this process will be important and the RSE is seeking to develop its international links with the British Council Scotland. In this context the RSE has now been invited to be represented on a sub-committee of the Chief Scientists Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for the promotion of science and technology overseas.

Development and Implementation

The large-scale strategic science policy issues identified in this report require high level oversight. A science-led independent Advisory Board should, therefore, be set up whose remit would be to advise on strategies for:

  • the effective integration of research within Scotland as part of the UK SET base, as the means of maintaining excellence, diversity and focus; and
  • the efficient exploitation of the SET base to the benefit of society.

It should have high level representation from industry, the universities, research institutes, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Scottish Enterprise. It should also have a formal link to the UK Council for Science and Technology.

Responsibilities should be embedded within the Scottish Executive which should permit:

  • day-to-day implementation of the strategy of the Scottish Executive and the Advisory Board for the SET base;
  • co-ordination of SET advice to ministers;
  • representation of Scottish interests on UK co-ordinating bodies and relevant DTI / OST committees such as the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee; and in the EU arena; and
  • a trans-Departmental remit for SET within the Scottish Executive to ensure best use of resources and the cross-disciplinary and cross-sector integration of research and advice when appropriate.

These functions should command professional credibility within the UK SET community, with users and with the public, by creating an appropriate post to be filled by a scientist of international repute.

Additional Points
Although science, engineering and technology appear in the opening paragraphs of the consultation paper for the majority of the remainder, "science" is used as an umbrella term for all three. The Society believes that this is unhelpful. The three are inextricably linked, and not using the term SET frequently leads to the exclusion of the necessarily broader thinking which encompasses all three from the discussion. Science, engineering and technology are all important within the educational context. Support for the engineering disciplines, in particular, is important if knowledge transfer into technology is to remain healthy.

In commenting on this document the Society would also like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses and publications which are of relevance to this subject:

Commercialisation Enquiry: Final Report (1996);
The Innovation - Exploitation Barrier (January 1997);
Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation (March 1998);
The Scientific Advisory System (June 1998);
A New Strategy for the Scottish Enterprise Network (October 1998);
Review of SOAEFD agriculture-related scientific research programme (November 1998);
Devolution and Science (April 1999);
Developing Scotland’s Clusters (June 1999);
Science and Society (June 1999);
The OECD Edinburgh Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods (February 2000)
A Framework for Economic Development in Scotland (March 2000);
Research and the Knowledge Age (April 2000);
Enterprise Network Review (May 2000).

 

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