Yesterday the Scottish Affairs Committee began its inquiry into how Scotland can best realise its potential as a world leader in scientific research.
Among the four experts giving evidence at the first session of the inquiry was Mette High who was representing the recently-established Scottish Alliances for Research Challenges (ARCs), a programme conceived and funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
In our submissions to the committee, both SFC and the ARCs identified that Scotland has a long and notable history of research excellence and a strongly collaborative ethos. Today, Scotland’s research base remains highly productive and competitive both nationally and internationally. Scotland performs well in securing UKRI income, with a national share higher than that of its researcher population. At a national level Scotland also did very well in the most recent REF exercise.
We know that to maintain this competitiveness – and the pipeline of research impact that makes a significant contribution to our society and economy – we need to harness strengths across Scotland and boost critical mass. We also know that, with research funders moving towards longer and larger grants and challenge-oriented approaches, we need to create more opportunities to seed collaboration to reflect this direction of travel.
Enter the ARCs
Establishing the ARCs is one way in which we’re supporting Scottish university research to respond to the changing landscape and help to address urgent and complex challenges in society.
Last year we announced a call for expressions of interest in up to four challenge areas. The idea was to develop selected responses into full proposals for collaborative partnerships spanning different universities and incorporating different disciplines. Once formed, the partnerships would address challenges clearly aligned to the Scottish Government’s national priorities. A Wonkhe blog by my colleague Cat Ball set out what our ambitions were as we began to lay the foundations.
So, what’s happened since then? Well, I’m delighted to say that yesterday evening we held an event to launch four exciting new Alliances for Research Challenges. Our SFC-funded portfolio of ARCs is made up of the:
- Brain Health Alliance: creating new collaborations with a shared vision of improving brain health.
- Scottish Research Alliance for Energy, Homes and Livelihoods: helping to achieve an equitable and sustainable net zero future.
- Scottish Alliance for Food: health, equity and sustainability – reimagining the food landscape and how to build a better future for all.
- Quantum ARC: connecting societal challenges to quantum-enabled solutions and building the skills base needed to ensure the responsible development of quantum technologies for society and realise their benefits.
Yesterday’s event brought together stakeholders from across Scottish research and innovation and introduced them to the ARCs, their place within the Scottish research and innovation landscape and their plans for the future.
What did we tell them?
First of all, that the ARCs will build on a strong culture of collaboration in Scotland, strengthened over recent years by successful SFC programmes such as research pooling, innovation centres and our national graduate schools. These programmes have brought together researchers from different institutions, experts in complementary disciplines, academic talent and industry know-how to accelerate discoveries in health, the life sciences, the arts and in many other fields.
We explained that each ARC will focus our research excellence on a specific area of the Scottish government’s national priorities. They will bring together the best people and the right disciplines no matter where these are within the sector. The alliances will support Scottish researchers and Scottish universities to respond to funding opportunities as and when they occur.
We also shared our ambition for ARCs to play an important role in developing the next generation of researchers, through active support for early career researchers and with equality, diversity and inclusion hard-wired into their design.
Each ARC will be funded up to a total of £600,000 for the next four years. Although the ARCs are currently in their early stages, they are already busy forging links between Scottish universities and other parts of the research and innovation sector. Future plans include seed funding awards to support new partnerships; setting up training and mentoring opportunities; sandpit events; workshops; and horizon scanning.
Importantly, the four alliances are already looking for ways to work with each other to make the very most of their shared expertise.
I know the ARCs have an enormous potential to harness opportunities within the shifting research landscape and I am very much looking forward to seeing where the next few years will take us.