SNP are undermining our reputation for science

I was pleased to speak at the annual "Science and the Parliament" event today - a get together for people involved in Scotland's science sector that I helped establish back in 2001. During my speech I talked about the importance of investing in research and evidence-based policy making.

The full text of my speech was as follows:

It is a pleasure to be amongst you again. 

For those not aware I set up this event back in 2001 and I have been delighted to see it grow in stature thanks to Bristow’s excellent stewardship.

The debate and networking combined with imposing science on the parliament makes this a special event.

The range and wealth of talent present today is always impressive.

The question facing all political parties is how government can best use the levers available to it to nurture and capitalise on that talent.

How can government policy, spending and regulation encourage innovation, help create jobs and secure sustainable growth?

How can government help broaden horizons?

Record in government

Liberal Democrats have a strong record of supporting science in Scotland.

In coalition in the first Scottish Parliament, we worked hard to develop the life sciences industry.

We also set ambitious targets for renewable energy which have now been surpassed.  And we made significant investments in the sector too which have helped to grow.

More recently, our Ministers in the last UK Government helped ensure the science budget was ring-fenced, protecting it from the funding reductions faced by most of the public sector.

That amounted to an investment of almost £25 billion over the duration of the Parliament.

We know Scotland has a stubbornly poor record on industrial R&D investment.

That’s why Vince Cable and Danny Alexander’s science and innovation package is so important.

This package included:

-       A new fund for cutting edge science facilitates worth £400 million;

-       Capital investment for agencies beyond the ring fence, such as a new super-computer for the Met Office;

-       And the first wave of catapult centres.

These facilities are designed to turn novel ideas into commercial realities. Bridging the gap between education and industry; between universities, research institutions and business.

The centres specialise in those areas where the UK and Scotland have the potential to become market leaders, from high value manufacturing to precision medicine.

As a result, the Offshore Renewable Catapult now employs more than 50 people at its headquarters in Glasgow.

Elsewhere, Catapult has worked with SMAR Azure, a company which has designed software for Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup team.

Catapult has helped the University of Strathclyde become a centre for satellite applications and supported Clyde Space – an award winning supplier of micro spacecraft systems.

Catapults have helped thousands of businesses and projects across the UK. Public and private investment has now topped £1.4 billion.

Of course, investment decisions are rightly underpinned by the Haldane Principle – the notion that government may set the over-arching strategy but that detailed decisions on how research money is spent are for the science community. Decisions should be driven by peer review, free from political pressures.

And there is certainly more scope for politicians to trust scientists on matters of policy too. More scope to listen to the opinion of experts and be led by the evidence.

Evidence-based policy making

Take GM.

It is patently obvious that we should adopt an evidence-based policy on genetic engineering and biotechnologies.

However, in August the Scottish Government took advantage of a new EU opt-out and introduced a blanket ban on GM crops.

The Environment Secretary justified it as protecting Scotland’s “clean and green brand”.

But it isn’t clear on what evidence, if any, this decision was made. The Parliament didn’t take evidence on a ban or sign up to it.

It is illiberal to ban something on the basis of perception, rather than evidence.

What kind of this message does this send to the scientific community here in Scotland and beyond? How does help the likes of the James Hutton and Rowett institutes – world leaders in this sector? It suggests Scotland is closed for business.

The ban has been criticised by Edinburgh, Robert Gordon and Dundee universities and organisations from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to NFU Scotland.

The head of the Scottish Science Advisory Council, which wasn’t consulted either, said there are “no examples of adverse consequences” and that GM crops are kinder to the environment as they reduce the need for pesticides.

The last Chief Scientific Advisor for Scotland, Professor Muffy Calder, said it could have “apocalyptic” consequences, leaving key cash crops such as potatoes, soft fruits and barley – essential for our whisky – more susceptible to disease.

She said the ban was based on “fear of the unknown” and some “unscrupulous articles in the very early days about potential health risks”. A damning indictment.

Her predecessor, Professor Anne Glover, also said it was “not possible to equate ‘clean and green’ with anti-GM” and described Scotland’s failure to use the best available EU-approved technology as “a missed opportunity”.

Far from protecting Scotland’s reputation the Scottish Government is undermining it.  Just like those who questioned Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, ministers are indulging in an anti-science philosophy.

You would expect ministers to at least have consulted their current Chief Scientific Advisor. The only problem is, they haven’t had one for the last 11 months. The post has lain vacant since December 2014. That says it all.

I find it hard to believe that ministers couldn’t have found anyone qualified to fill the post in the meantime.

That is not to say that there aren’t problems in recruitment and retention.

Women in science

One of the biggest challenges for science in Scotland is the fact that Professor Muffy Calder and Professor Glover are too often the exception. We need to increase the participation of women at all levels in STEM.

In 2012, a landmark report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh found that three quarters of women with STEM qualifications do not work in STEM industries and they are far too few in the top positions across business, public service and academia.

The Scottish Government has arguably failed to seize upon this. The skills investment plan only hints at responding to this problem. And it wasn’t mentioned in the First Minister’s Programme for Government.

The future of science in Scotland depends on attracting new talent, incubating ingenuity and nurturing technical expertise. The failure to retain and properly recognise female talent is undoubtedly holding us back.

University Governance Bill

Finally, I would like to touch on an issue that is causing deep concern in the university sector.  That is Higher Education Governance Bill. 

It is no less than another example of government interference in a sector that has thrived in large part because of its independence.

The regulatory powers Ministers are looking to take through this bill present a real and present threat to our universities.

Universities Scotland has been unambiguous on the threat that changing the law poses to university finances. The reassurances that Ministers have provided have been wholly unconvincing.

These changes could cost universities millions of pounds of crucial funding. Hardly, I would argue, a price worth risking – far less paying.

This is a legacy of grievance left by Mike Russell that Angela Constance would be well advised to dispose of.


Scientific excellence is critical to Scotland and the UK’s wellbeing and prosperity. That is why it is so important that policies are based on the evidence of what works and are designed to open up new opportunities and markets, not close them down.

Liberal Democrats believe that collaboration, the right resources, the right people and an open mind are all key. These are the factors that will guide us as we approach the next election and beyond.

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