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INSIDE TRACK: Research needed on aspect of referendum debate

THE theory of reactance developed by psychologist Jack Brehm suggests humans desire something that is denied to them significantly more than if it was freely available.

Apparent since Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, Brehm illustrated the theory some years later by placing a plastic barrier between two-year-old boys and a toy, making it more attractive to them than a similar toy without a barrier.

Likewise, the Romeo and Juliet effect suggests lovelorn teenagers will be more likely to pursue their romance - at least in the short term - if their families try to stop it, with a rising sense of injustice directed at their parents.

There may be important lessons here for those currently campaigning to preserve the Union.

While compelling arguments no doubt exist to suggest the fear of losing something we value is equally likely to influence our decision-making, the strategy of saying No doesn't appear to be working in the independence debate.

Indeed, a poll earlier this week suggested almost half of voters who are undecided perceive the Better Together campaign as negative. The best example of this was Chancellor George Osborne arguing that if Scotland walked away from the UK "it walks away from the UK pound".

The consensus is that this backfired, with Scots angry at perceived bullying tactics by a Conservative minister at Westminster, but also equally likely to question the claims and look more favourably on the alternatives.

While education has remained peripheral to the referendum debate thus far, the damaging tendency to accentuate the negative was evident in recent discussions over whether universities would continue to enjoy funding from the UK-wide research councils in the event of independence.

While the Scottish Government is the largest single source of university research funding, with £330m allocated in 2012/13, the second largest contribution is the £240m in competitively awarded grants from the Research Councils, which Scotland contributes to through its share of tax.

Both No and Yes groups agree that the best way to fund research is through the current structure because it mirrors the collaborations that exist in the academic community.

However, academics who support the Union have argued it would be impossible to recreate the structure post independence because there is no precedent for a similar single funding system operating across international boundaries.

From then on the debate was focused on the issue of whether the structure, or something similar, could be recreated, rather than the benefits or otherwise of the current system, with enough evidence to suggest its continuation was a possibility.

Even Paul Boyle of the UK Research Councils told MSPs in March that he hoped the cross-Border network would continue, saying the body strongly supported the idea of Scotland remaining part of it.

Surely a more positive and effective strategy would have been to highlight the research councils as an embodiment of the success of the UK, rather than telling Scots they could not be replaced.

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