The impact of university research in Scotland

A set of new reports affirm the benefits of Scottish university research to the economy and to wider society. Lesley Yellowlees explains what they’re all about

Lesley Yellowlees is Chair of the Scottish Funding Council’s Research and Knowledge Exchange Committee

In the midst of significant public sector funding challenges, it’s all too easy for investment in research to be seen as a “nice to have” rather than an “essential”.

But we know that it is essential – new knowledge and new inventions benefit everyone in the long term – successful “blue skies” research in universities spills over into benefits for businesses, industry and the whole economy. Research and innovation create wealth and give rise to the industries of the future. The technologies that will support the transition to net zero, big data and artificial intelligence are all moving out of research departments to create real investment and real jobs in the industries of tomorrow.

As a community, we need to be better able to demonstrate what we know to policy-makers and the public. A key finding from the public attitudes survey carried out for the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s Discovery Decade project was that universities’ role in the R&D system is not clear to the public. The survey also revealed that public support for R&D investment is fragile, and opinions readily shift when R&D is framed in competition with other pressing priorities. In an era of funding challenges and elections ahead, we need better evidence for why R&D investment is critical.

Addressing the challenge

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has supported the publication of three new evidence reports, each touching on a different aspect of how research investment brings benefits to Scotland’s public. The complementary reports look at economic benefits, broader societal benefits and how both of these are underpinned by investment in core university research funding – through what we call the Research Excellence Grant (REG) in Scotland, known as QR in the rest of the UK.

The report published by the Fraser of Allander Institute has uncovered fresh insights about how university research drives Scotland’s economy. Its analysis found that the public investment channelled into research by SFC supports at least 8,900 full-time equivalent jobs, £590 million in sales of goods and services produced in Scotland and a £410 million contribution to the Scottish economy measured as gross value-added. This is a minimum level, before spillovers and wider benefits are taken into account. But even so, this level of support is typically higher than that provided by other sectors, and evidence from elsewhere at a UK level suggests universities generate up to 20 per cent more value at least on top of these benefits.

New work from RAND has examined how research conducted in Scottish universities improves people’s lives by diving deep into the REF 2021 impact case studies. This is published alongside corresponding work looking at the UK-wide and Welsh pictures. RAND found that Scottish universities are able to turn their research into local benefits in areas like education, health and the arts; in around one in every three case studies looked at, benefits occurred within a 15-mile radius of the university undertaking the research.

They also highlight how Scottish universities are helping tackle the climate emergency in ways including developing new technologies, finding ways to measure greenhouse gases and helping to shape policy in the UK and across the world. Importantly, they are also working closely with industry to turn research into business opportunities, jobs and future prosperity.

Build on a foundation

All these benefits are rooted in the public investment in university research from the Scottish government through REG.

REG provides universities in Scotland with a stable foundation on which to base their long-term development of excellence in research and innovation and is designed to work in tandem, as part of the dual support system, with the short-term project grants Scottish universities attract from sources such as UK Research and Innovation, the European Union, and charities.

The final report published today describes the positive impact of SFC’s foundational funding stream through a series of case studies featuring every university in Scotland in areas ranging from developing best practice in oil and gas decommissioning, to reducing youth offending through long-term research and manufacturing experimental anti-cancer drugs for clinical testing. SFC has also developed an animation to tell this story of how REG underpins the breadth of Scotland’s university research.

Supporting the pipeline

We know that research is a long-term endeavour, and the benefits we describe above come from past investments.

To have a pipeline for the research benefits of the future, Scotland needs stable, sustained and continuous investment in university research. We know that fluctuations in our investment risk the loss of research talent that is easily attracted to other countries and losing the structural base from which to win competitive project funding risks stalling the conversion of new knowledge into real world benefits.

Having a pipeline for the future will allow Scotland to build on its exceptional research abilities and continue to change lives, discover new knowledge and create prosperity for communities in Scotland and across the world. A hugely positive message that we, as a community, need to shout about.

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