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SFC’s Dr Stuart Fancey on what research and innovation in Scotland look like post-2020.

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Future ThinkingWhat will research and innovation in Scotland look like post-2020? How do we strengthen collaboration, attract talent and address funding issues after Brexit?

These were the questions we explored at a Scotland Policy Conferences seminar opened by Innovation Minister Ivan McKee at the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) this week. I had the pleasure of speaking to delegates in a session with Helen Cross from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI).

As I told the audience, it’s hard enough to predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone post-2020, but it is always interesting to test collective confidence in our powers of prediction by trying.

The trajectory of collaborative, multi-disciplinary research with an eye to application potential is not new, but the creation of UKRI and the introduction of the Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund (ISCF) have sped that up, and I have to say this suits us very well. 

Scotland has a collaborative research culture. This is exemplified by research pooling but is also evident in many other national activities that help our research find its way out into the world – the University Innovation Fund, Scotland’s Innovation Centres, Interface, Converge and more.

At the core of this is a world-leading research base. The recent Scottish Science Advisory Council report (SSAC) highlighted, among other strengths, that Scotland produces more academic publications per researcher; our research is cited more often than research from competitor nations; and investment in Business Enterprise Research and Development has doubled over the past decade.

Furthermore, from the drive to involve every part of Scotland in bespoke City Region, Island and Borderlands deals, to the huge response to UKRI’s creation of both the Strength in Places and the Global Challenges Research Funds, we have very much taken to the brave new world of UKRI policy in local economic development, place-based funding and sustainable development of developing countries.

When I think about the future of collaboration I’m not just thinking across disciplines or universities, but of colleges and universities working with companies, and of partnerships between research institutes, government and academia.  International research partnerships are a particular strength here in Scotland that we must continue to build on. For export and foreign investment, but also to maintain Scotland’s reputation as an open and welcoming country, and to help us to continue to attract the world’s best and brightest.

From a government perspective, SFC works closely with Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, the Chief Scientist Office and other parts of Scottish Government and its agencies. I predict that partnership to grow and in fact we are actively making sure it does. We are in this together and that is how we respond best.

When I say ‘we are in this together’, I mean we share the challenges and the opportunities. Take climate change – getting our carbon emissions to the First Minister’s target of net zero by 2045 is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity, and one that is within reach if we are Team Scotland. 

With universities and colleges, research institutes, private and public sectors working in collaboration, Scotland can solve the technical, system, re-skilling and social challenges of transitioning to a net zero society, and show the world how it’s possible to achieve inclusive, sustainable economic growth with wellbeing at its heart.

The challenges I mentioned include changing transport, heat, behaviour, expectations and so much more. We will need all of our university research in the 2020s – science and engineering, medicine, the humanities, the creative arts and the social sciences – to help us adapt to these challenges.

There is no use building a new world, a new low carbon society, if we cannot understand ourselves, cannot govern ourselves or express ourselves in art, culture and profound statements of the human condition. I think that sentiment, that appreciation for all of academic and cultural life, resonated with our venue, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and I hope it resonated with the audience. I am pleased that the breadth of what we in Scotland value in our universities and our colleges is clearly expressed in SFC’s new Strategic Framework published earlier this year.

We know resources are tight. But history shows we respond best when all our talents and infrastructure are used in collaboration for maximum effect. As we are so well aligned to the UKRI ethos and our challenges are no similar to those of the rest of the UK it was very fitting to have shared the platform with Helen.  She brought us up to speed on developments at UKRI and speculated about the future of UK funding post-Brexit (as far as she dared).

UKRI and its constituent councils are still evolving and the external challenges we face are significant so we need to stay on our toes. With the leadership of university and college principals, with the enthusiastic embracing of the new agendas by researchers and those who help that research to reach an audience, and with a close partnership with the enterprise and skills agencies, I am confident that Scotland can flourish.