Scots team up to fend off global competition

September 10, 2004

Fears that Scottish research might miss out after the English White Paper have been allayed, due to the Scots' ability to work together. Olga Wojtas reports.

Scotland's academics and universities are creating national research teams to meet the challenge of heavyweight research competition from abroad, including the threat from institutions south of the border.

In many subjects, notably the sciences, the research assessment exercise shows that bigger tends to be better, with departments that boast a critical mass of researchers more likely to reap the financial rewards.

Many Scottish departments are just too small to sustain such concentrations of excellence.

As a result, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has encouraged collaboration explorations in four very different areas. Physics, economics, life sciences and creative arts are now investigating whether a radical pooling of research will give them a competitive edge. Chemistry is carrying out its own investigations.

Roger McClure, chief executive of Shefc, said that having worked in England he saw a greater propensity for collaboration in Scotland because of both its size and its strong sense of identity. Institutions invariably described their work in the context of what Scotland needed, he said.

"I never felt when I was (south of the border) that everybody had the sense that they were playing for England. In such a competitive arena, you have to build on your inherent strengths and this is one of Scotland's," Mr McClure said.

"The issue is, if pooling could be made to work, can we make them (Scottish academics) even more successful and unassailable in their field?" he said.

"Competitiveness won't wait. If you can improve your position, you should improve it."

Mr McClure said Shefc had taken great care to emphasise and re-emphasise that joint submissions would be welcome under the new rules.

John Archer, convener of Universities Scotland and principal of Heriot-Watt University, said: "All of us in different ways have been working together for a long time, and this is a way to try to raise the game a bit more.

"It's enlightened self-interest. Individual researchers want to do the things they're good at and get international recognition."

Professor Archer said Scottish institutions had set their face against axeing funds for "middle-order" research, which was nonetheless crucial for the country's future.

This is markedly different to the approach taken in England where more money is concentrated in a few top-rated departments.

"How can we retain an important base of work and remain competitive at the top end? Collaboration and pooling is a way of trying to address that," he said.

The question for creative arts is how far critical mass is relevant, and for economics, where nobody in Scotland scored above 4 in the RAE, whether it could create groups of international calibre.

Physics has the most advanced proposals. The Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (Supa) plans to bring together six universities: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Paisley, St Andrews and Strathclyde.

Alan Miller, vice-principal of St Andrews and a key Supa member, stressed that these research alliances did not involve departmental mergers but would bring together researchers in key areas to compete against world leaders.

The aim is to share resources and specialisms, eventually to make joint submissions to the RAE and, in the case of physics, to create a pan-Scotland graduate school offering enhanced education and training.

"Traditionally, the UK has offered very little formal training for PhD students. That's often a critical mass thing: individual universities don't have the staff to put on specialist courses. By working collectively, we'd expect to be able to get around that," Professor Miller said.

Professor Archer said there was keen international competition for good PhD students, who went where they thought they would get best value. Attracting research stars was one benefit of pooling, but the added value to future employability was also crucial.

Chemistry also has advanced plans, having produced a separate blueprint setting out proposals for two groupings, EastChem (Edinburgh and St Andrews) and WestChem (Glasgow and Strathclyde).

David Bleiman, the Association of University Teachers' Scottish official, said pooling could benefit not only Scotland's international competitiveness, but also researchers' terms and conditions.

Mr Bleiman said that the pooling of a variety of funding sources and the larger scale at which research would be taking place could "open the door to permanent careers in place of fixed-term insecurity".

But he warned: "So long as institutional funding is based on a highly competitive process and in particular an RAE process that hinders collaboration, the scope for collaboration may be limited."


How Scottish reserach measures up

Fears that Scottish research might miss out after the English White Paper have been allayed, due to the Scots' ability to work together. Olga Wojtas reports

  • With 9 per cent of the UK population, Scotland wins 12 per cent of the total UK funding council resources for research; 12 per cent of research council resources for research; 13 per cent of government research departments' resources for research; and 12 per cent of European Union research resources spent in the UK.
  • It has 6 per cent of all UK departments in the top three RAE categories; 12.5 per cent of all UK 5 and 5*-rated departments; 12.1 per cent of UK research-active staff submitted to the 2001 RAE; and 50 per cent of research staff work in departments rated as inter-nationally excellent.
  • Scotland's per capita income from research grants and contracts is £39. This compares with £28 for England, £17 for Wales and £15 for Northern Ireland. It produces 1 per cent of all research worldwide, making Scotland third for research publications per head of pop-ulation.

Source: Universities Scotland

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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