A little while ago, I visited a plant run by a major multinational company. The company is known globally for its high-value products in a knowledge-intensive industry sector. It has a significant presence in Scotland, and the plant I visited generates employment and other economic benefits for its locality. Nevertheless, the work done there is fairly basic manufacturing, although admittedly to a very high standard.
At the plant, I asked a member of the local management team if the company had considered locating any research and development in Scotland. The blunt answer was “no”. On the face of it, this is surprising and disappointing, because the science and technology employed by the company in product innovation is very much part of the portfolio of a number of Scottish universities.
In a similar way, one might point to the fact that the dominant industry sector in Aberdeen and northeast Scotland, oil and gas, produces very little local R&D. There is an innovative supply chain, but most of the knowledge-intensive innovation is being done elsewhere, either in other regions of the UK or, more commonly, outside Britain altogether. But if this area is to remain prosperous after North Sea oil has dried up, it needs to anchor R&D here, and it needs to do so now.
Scotland has some of the finest universities in the world, producing excellent research of international quality and educating people who will graduate with valuable skills, comparing favourably with graduates from anywhere else. Why has this not led to corporate investment in R&D, as it has elsewhere, from North Carolina to the Republic of Ireland?
Since coming to Scotland from Ireland three years ago, my experience has been that the link between improvements in industry and the excellence of the university research community has not been adequately made. There is some progress in sight now, principally in the form of the innovation centres being developed through the Scottish Funding Council; but nevertheless I am regularly surprised at the failure to use higher education excellence much more directly to attract new investment. I am also surprised at the relatively low level of interest in the potential of university spin-offs as drivers of indigenous enterprise.
Universities rightly say that, in a potential post-referendum independent Scotland, Scottish universities should continue to be part of a wider research community and infrastructure covering these islands. Maintaining that system will help to ensure continuing world-class excellence that will benefit Scotland and the rest of the UK as well. However, within Scotland it will be important to ensure that the state agencies, and indeed industry, understand that this excellence can and should be deployed to secure sustainable high-value jobs and enterprise.
To achieve this, universities need to be seen not just as service providers, but as partners in economic planning. An independent Scotland, or indeed a Scotland with a higher degree of devolution, will need to prioritise this objective. It needs to present Scotland as a place of genuine world-leading academic excellence in a key number of sectors. That is what will secure sustainable economic growth; it is where the future lies.