What happens to science if Scotland leaves the UK?

The Union flag and the Scottish Saltire fly together in Edinburgh.

Scottish scientists and engineers have had a huge impact on the world over the centuries, with a long list of innovations to their name – much longer than its small population would suggest.

Their inventions and discoveries include (in no particular order) artificial kidneys, beta-blocker drugs, the properties of carbon dioxide, Proxima Centauri, staphylococcus, the Horsehead Nebula, EKG, the electric toaster, fingerprinting, the first divers’ decompression tables, the first theory of the Higgs boson, flush toilets, the Glasgow coma scale, the Gregorian telescope, hypnotism, the hypodermic syringe, identifying the mosquito as the carrier of malaria, the nucleus in living cells, incandescent light bulbs, insulin, the kelvin SI unit of temperature, the lawnmower, logarithms, Macadamised roads, the MRI body scanner, noble gases, the overhead valve engine, pedal bicycles, penicillin, pneumatic tyres, radar, refrigerators, anaesthesia, the telephone, television, the cause of transplant rejection, the ultrasound scanner, the vaccine for typhoid fever, the world's first oil refinery and Dolly the sheep.

Virtually all of the above list were discovered or invented while Scotland was part of the United Kingdom. And they outshine that country as a whole – Scotland’s scientists produce more papers per head, and receive more citations per paper, than the UK average.

So what happens to the country's science if its people votes Yes next Thursday to independence and a permanent break from the UK?

Opinion is divided as Nature found out when it took the temperature. Funding was a central area of concern to many.

...some scientists fear that research might become more parochial. One senior Scottish scientist who opposes independence... said that he preferred decisions on research funding to come from London or Swindon... rather than from a small scientific community that would be subject to the sway “of a few very dominant personalities”.

Those in the ‘yes’ camp dismiss such fears, and emphasize the opportunities presented by independence. Bryan MacGregor, a land economist, vice-principal at the University of Aberdeen and a member of Academics for Yes, says that he sees this as a chance to devote a greater portion of government money to research.

Nature quotes English geneticist and Nobel prizewinner Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society in London, as saying he feared a break-up of the union would hinder the “open, liquid and dynamic exchanges” under which science thrives.

On the other hand, Scotland could see a flood of talent from abroad if the country reinstates post-study work visas to allow foreign students to work for two years once they had finished their degrees, that were scrapped by the UK two years ago.

  1. http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-split-over-scottish-independence-vote-1.15882#success
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