Should organisations that rely on Scottish Government funding be less shy of taking a stance in the referendum debate?
That question arises from today's letter written by a group of 14 leading Scottish academics in the life sciences field. As well as expressing their worries about the impact independence could have on funding in their economically important area, they have voiced concerns about the silence of Universities Scotland and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, institutions they say feel obliged to remain neutral because of receiving Government funding.
This is tricky for the organisations concerned. For them to come down firmly on one side or other would be challenging even without private anxieties over how doing so might displease their paymasters. The academic community is itself divided on independence, after all.
Even so, Scotland's sectoral interest groups should be encouraged to give their views, whether they are concerned about the impact of independence or can see benefits in it; expressing misgivings or hopes need not be taken as being firmly for or against, in any case. It has been said before that this debate is far too important to be left to politicians.
In the meantime, these academics, like others before them, have taken up the discussion themselves. They argue the continuation of the advantages Scottish universities enjoy as part of a UK-wide research funding structure could not be guaranteed under independence.
Well, could they or could they not? As so often in this debate, the answer comes down to whom one believes. The academics point out Scottish universities get 13.1% of funding from UK Research Councils, while accounting for just 8.4% of the UK population, and that even if the UK agreed to a common research area, as proposed by the Scottish Government, the rest of the UK would be hostile to Scotland getting more than its proportionate share. They also argue Scotland could lose out on funding from the likes of the Wellcome Trust because, although the Trust funds some work in Ireland, it insists on doing so only on an equal basis with other national funders, instead of funding schemes outright as it does in Scotland.
The other side of the argument is Scottish academics and universities would want to keep the same research funding model in the event of independence and even the UK Research Councils have given their support to keeping it going. Dismantling the system and building a new one would be messy, then, and could result in some lost funding, but it would certainly be possible.
What is abundantly clear is both sides see big advantages in the structure as it currently stands. While this might justifiably be held up by Better Together as one of the benefits of UK membership for Scotland, the question then becomes whether the goal of independence is sufficiently attractive to make dismantling it and trying to replicate something similar in its place, worth the effort. Academics are likely to remain divided on that point until referendum day.
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