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Scotland’s future

Castle Stalker

Scotland: staying in the UK following the referendum. (CC BY-SA 2.0/Jack Torcello)

By Matin Durrani

In the end, it was perhaps not too unexpected when Scotland voted against independence in yesterday’s referendum. Almost all of the polls in the run-up to the vote had signalled a win for the “no” camp – and so it turned out, with 55% of voters wanting Scotland to remain tied to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the UK. But it was a relatively close-run affair and many will be relieved that the two sides have avoided having tospend the next few years arguing, like a divorcing couple, over how to divide their spoils.

When it comes to science, there had been powerful evidence that Scotland could have gone it alone. Pro-independence groups had pointed, for example, to Scotland being third in the world for citations per researcher (behind only Switzerland and the Netherlands) and having five of the world’s top 200 universities in the Times Higher Education ranking – more per head of population than any other country. Scotland also invests more in university research as a fraction of its contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than any other part of the UK. It already has its own distinct education system and does not charge home-grown students any university tuition fees.

But much of the country’s research success has come from Scottish universities winning a large share of UK-wide research-council funding – attracting 13% of cash in 2012/13, compared with the 8% it would win if Scotland’s share were based on population alone. Whether an independent Scottish nation could have sustained that funding is not clear. There would also have been uncertainties over Scotland’s access to facilities based outside the country, such as the Diamond synchrotron and the ISIS neutron source, and indeed its future membership of international organizations such as CERN and the European Space Agency.

Scotland has a long and proud tradition in physics and over the years has nurtured many talented stars, notably James Clerk Maxwell, Peter Guthrie Tait and the Nobel-prize-winner Charles Wilson. Today, it has a particularly vibrant laser and optoelectronics sector, which no doubt encouraged Germany’s Fraunhofer Society to set up its first research centre in the UK – the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics at the University of Strathclyde – to focus on industry-related laser research. Scotland has also been a magnet for talented researchers from elsewhere, such as the Edinburgh-based Nobel laureate Peter Higgs.

Ultimately, the people in Scotland felt, on balance, that there were too many risks in going it alone. The question of independence has now been decided, but with the Scottish government set to gain further devolved powers, what’s important is that the country remains a place that does top science and can attract the best talent. The next few years will certainly be interesting, if still uncertain, times.

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