This week saw the scientists who paved the way for the development of the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. Thirty-five years previously, it was the Scotsman Sir James Black, alumnus of the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee and a researcher at the University of Glasgow’s Veterinary School, who won the very same Nobel Prize for his work to develop beta blockers. It’s true that Scotland has always been at the cutting-edge of technological development, science and invention. This is largely due to the fact we are home to a number of world-leading universities.

Our universities are both a national asset - catalysts of innovation, social mobility and inclusive growth - and an international pole of attraction, central to Scotland’s global reputation. It’s often said our sector punches well above its weight when it comes to research, and a report by London Economics for Universities Scotland last year found that the estimated impact of Scottish universities' research activities in 2019-20 stood at almost £5.8 billion.

We’re home to globally-competitive clusters in Precision Medicine, quantum technology, semiconductors, data science, advanced manufacturing and creative economies which have high potential for growth and which can be deployed to address the stubborn socioeconomic and health challenges we face. There is significant interest from international investors in Scottish R&D, particularly in key sectors such as digital chemistry and the life sciences, where Scotland genuinely excels.

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However, there are worrying signs of declining competitiveness. While Scotland continues to do well in securing funding from the UK’s major research funder, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), data suggests Scotland's share of total UKRI C grant income to universities has gradually declined over the past decade. While the UK Government has increased its spend on R&D and grown UKRI’s overall budget, this has not been echoed to the same extent in Scotland. From 2016/17 to 2022/23, the combined total of research and university innovation funding in Scotland provided by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) increased by only 7%, well below the equivalent Research England core funding streams which increased by around 30%.

This puts us at a real disadvantage when it comes to our ability to compete with heavyweight research institutions from across other parts of the UK. We need a level playing field in terms of core research and innovation funding in order to leverage more research funding from UKRI and other major UK research funders. When additional funding is announced for English universities via Research England, in general the Scottish Government receives corresponding funding through the Barnett formula – these uplifts need to be passed on in full to the SFC.

There is also differentiation when it comes to Knowledge Exchange (KE) funding in the UK. KE activity is designed to incentivise universities to produce research which helps society but the infrastructure in place to support this is different across the UK. The amount in Scotland is a significantly smaller pot of money than the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) available in England. Here in Scotland, KE funding is available through the SFC’s University Innovation Fund (UIF), designed to incentivise universities to work collaboratively to exploit their research to improve Scotland’s economy. In Glasgow we use this funding to employ 45 staff across the university who facilitate and support innovation activities and who are working to build an innovation ecosystem around the University and Glasgow City Region. For example, Chemify, a University spinout focused on using digital chemistry to speed up the development of new medicines, raised $43 million from US investors earlier this year. And a spinout created to facilitate new clinical trials to develop treatments for people suffering from tennis elbow, Causeway Therapeutics, was able to attract £9 million of investment to Glasgow from biotech investors back in February.

Given the right tools, resources and support, our universities are able to unlock investment, and in turn use this to create jobs and stimulate inclusive growth for Scotland. At present we’re working with a much smaller toolkit than our colleagues in England and this is having an impact on our overall ability to keep pace with our peers in the so-called "golden triangle"’ in the southeast of England.

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But it’s not too late to seek to balance the scales, and this week sees another opportunity to do so. As a sector we know finances are tight in the current economic climate. However, this week Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary of State Michelle Donelan announced a new £60 million Regional Innovation Fund to boost support for universities in areas with lower levels of R&D investment. This new Fund will see £5.8 million allocated to Scotland through the Barnett formula, and it is vital that the Scottish Government passes these consequentials to the sector via the SFC so that we can invest in those research fields with high-return, which boost productivity and allow Scottish institutions to compete within the UK and internationally, too. The importance of the baseline research and innovation funding is something I emphasised in my report for the Scottish Government in 2019. If we are serious about being an innovation nation, and boosting our productivity, then we need to start by levelling the playing field with the rest of the UK.

We have some way to go in closing the gap with our English peers, so we need to act quickly and grasp the opportunities available if we want to keep Scotland competitive and pioneering on the global research stage. 

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli is the Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Glasgow