Political raw material

July 2, 1999

Scotland is building the academic and research network that will help make policy. Olga Wojtas reports

"This is an exciting time to be a researcher in Scotland," says Joyce Tait of Edinburgh University's research centre for social sciences. "There is a frisson of expectation in the air, that new ideas will emerge from the frustrations of the past and, from the resulting ferment of discussion and argument, new things will be possible."

The Scottish Parliament is the catalyst for the excitement, but alarmingly high hopes are being pinned on it. Professor Tait is director of the new interdisciplinary Scottish Universities Policy Research and Advice network (Supra), which aims to help improve decision-making quality.

Edinburgh University's principal, Sir Stewart Sutherland, speaking at Supra's launch this week, said the parliament needed policy advice based on a sound understanding of all the relevant issues.

"Supra, a network linking academics, a variety of public bodies and those responsible for taking policy decisions, will ensure that the country's research expertise finds practical application in those policy areas falling within the parliament's remit."

Supra, which hopes to advise industry and quangos alongside policy-makers, has won core funding from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's research development grant. A SHEFC spokeswoman said: "The council's funding is aimed at developing an organised research base in Scotland, able to carry out policy research, consultancy and advisory work on science, technology and the environment. Of course, the advent of the Scottish Parliament has focused extra attention on the need for this expertise. The network will plug that gap and help position Scotland at the hub of the United Kingdom's high-tech economy."

In its early stages, the Scottish Parliament has put the political emphasis on education, health and social welfare, Professor Tait said. "But our ability to manoeuvre in all these areas will depend on how effectively we create wealth, and the modern approach to wealth creation in Europe includes a concern for the environment," she said. "Environmental protection is a core objective for many organisations we hope to work with. Scientific understanding is essential for effective environmental protection, and science and technology can contribute to solutions."

Supra already has a network of core members, many of whom were scientists before moving into social and policy areas. Its key concern is to bring together the scientific, technological and social factors in studies ranging from biotechnology and health to sustainable development and change management.

Professor Tait stressed that projects would not always be carried out by core members but would involve others from home and abroad. "It would be very stultified if it solidified in a small clique. It's refreshing to bring in people with different perspectives from time to time, from Europe, the United States and other places."

Supra's associate director, Margaret Sheen, director of Etrac (Emerging Technologies Research and Assessment Centre) at Strathclyde University, said the outward-looking network could be a conduit of others' research. Supra members have already been advising the European Commission about incorporating interdisciplinary research into the current Fifth Framework research programme.

Sir Stewart said: "Supra will bring together best practice from Scotland's universities to serve policy-makers in Scotland, the UK and the European Union."

Robin Williams, director of Edinburgh's research centre for social sciences, said that unlike Westminster, the Scottish Parliament was not tied by rigid policy networks. "We think there's a possibility of a much closer and more intimate relationship between policy-makers and relevant academic researchers precisely because they don't have their tried and trusted experts."

Supra can be contacted at SUPRA@ed.ac.uk

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