Arctic Connections: Scotland's Arctic policy framework

A prospectus for cooperation, knowledge-exchange and policy partnerships between Scotland and the Arctic.

Education, Research and Innovation

Scottish universities and research centres have a long tradition of producing world-class science on the Arctic. However, there is scope for Scotland to be even more closely involved in multi-disciplinary research that addresses Arctic issues.

International collaboration and knowledge exchange are integral to the success of Scotland's universities and colleges. We have four universities in the World Top 200[5] and rank seventh among the OECD countries for Higher Education expenditure on research and development (HERD) as a percentage of GDP.[6] With Brexit posing major disruption to the academic sector, we are committed to ensuring Scotland can maintain its well-developed networks with Arctic research institutions and other international organisations.

Arctic research and international collaborations

Scottish institutions' world-leading Arctic science has elevated our profile on the international scientific stage and contributed to a deeper understanding of the rapid, profound and accelerating changes that, while at their most visible in the Arctic region, have a direct impact on the Scottish environment.

Since 2000, institutions in Scotland have contributed to more than one thousand academic publications about the Arctic region. A growing publication rate in this area since 2011 indicates a steady increase in Scotland's Arctic research expertise.

A number of Scottish universities host Arctic research programmes covering subjects as diverse as renewable energy, oceanography, climate justice, anthropology, archaeology and engineering. Through the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience Environment and Society (SAGES), Scotland is home to Europe's largest glaciology group SURGE (Scottish University Research in Glacial Environments),[7] attracting world-renowned researchers who carry out regular studies on the Greenland ice sheet and the glaciers of Svalbard. In addition, organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Marine Scotland Science, the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and the Environmental Research Institute have long collated evidence that is being used to monitor the environmental changes occurring in the Arctic. One particular area of expertise is the development of autonomous and robotic instruments that can measure oceanographic and sea ice alterations even in extreme conditions.

Marine Scotland Science staff make a significant contribution to the work of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which coordinates oceanic and coastal monitoring, advising international commissions and governments on marine policy and management issues.

Scotland-based institutions are major players in the £16 million Changing Arctic Ocean programme funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for the period 2017-2022. Oban-based SAMS, in particular, secured £5 million to conduct two science programmes, Arctic PRIZE and DIAPOD, that aim to develop a better understanding of the large-scale changes that climate change is producing in the region's ecosystem and food webs.

The Environmental Change Network Cairngorm site in Scotland is part of the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic (INTERACT). This EU-funded infrastructure project is actively building capacity for Arctic research and is offering hundreds of researchers access to almost 60 terrestrial research stations in northern Europe, Russia, United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland.

Scottish universities are also at the forefront of research into blue carbon, that is the carbon stored and sequestered in coastal and marine ecosystems. Scotland will be the first country in the world to undertake a region-wide blue carbon audit.

Social sciences are also becoming increasingly important in Arctic research. The University of Aberdeen's Arctic Domus provides an excellent example of how social and natural sciences can be combined to better understand and support remote communities and economies in the Arctic. The six year (2012-2018) project funded by the European Research Council involved over 30 scholars from Scotland, Canada, Russia and Norway. It focused on how people and animals have historically built sustainable communities around the circumpolar Arctic by using field sites in the Russian Federation, Fennoscandia and Canada.

Collaborative publications between Scotland and Arctic countries (2007-2016)

Collaborator Co-publications
United States 16,983
Canada 5,754
Sweden 3,729
Denmark 2,873
Norway 2,586
Russia 2,404
Finland 1,747
Iceland 466

Source: Scopus

International collaboration has been a key driver of Scotland's Arctic academic success and research impact. We have built a strong reputation as a reliable and trusted partner in global academic networks. International researchers are an integral part of our research base.

Case study

The Ellett line linking Scotland and Iceland is one of the few long-term measurements of the world's oceans. Measurements of salinity and temperature have been made for 65 years and help us understand the "Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation" (AMOC), a key part of the global climate system. This long time series gives oceanographers and climatologists a good idea of the variability of the flow of heat towards the Arctic. Monitoring of the Ellett line started in 1948 using simple water samplers attached to weather ships steaming from the River Clyde to weather stations in the Atlantic ocean. These weather ships operated into the 1990s. The line was extended in 1996 and included in major worldwide research as part of the World Ocean Circulation Experiment. Since 2014, remotely controlled robotic vehicles have been used to increase the frequency of observations.

Student and staff mobility

Scotland has a large international student body and proportionally more international students come to Scotland than to any other country in the UK. Arctic countries have large student numbers in Scotland with a total of 8,995 people from Arctic nations studying at Scottish universities in the 2017/18 academic year. Finnish students studying in Scotland during this period accounted for almost 10% of Finns studying abroad.

Scotland and the Arctic nations, especially those in Europe, share similar priorities on the role of universities in encouraging their students to become good global citizens. Recognition of academic qualifications, facilitated through the European Higher Education Area of which both Scotland and the European Arctic nations are members, increases the ease by which students can study between countries.

For staff in Scotland, the Arctic countries are key destinations for career development learning. For example, five out of the top ten destinations for staff undertaking placements through Erasmus+ during the 2016/17 academic year were Arctic nations.

While proportionally more Scottish students undertake periods of international study than from any other country in the UK, we would like to see this figure increase. The Norwegian Government's emphasis on the importance of student mobility is of great interest. We will work with the sector in Scotland to explore how we can learn from the Norwegian approach.

Case study

The University of the Arctic (UArctic) is a network of research institutions that aims to further education and research about the North. Aberdeen University and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) are members of the network. UArctic's North2North mobility programme enables students and staff to study, teach and carry out research in different parts of the network for up to one year. North2North embraces exchanges that can benefit northern populations and create a sense of northern citizenship. In 2019, UHI welcomed their first North2North students, further cementing their close collaboration with Arctic partners.


Scotland and the Arctic area are gaining international recognition as innovators. Arctic countries secured four of the first ten positions and seven of the first twenty places in the Global Innovation Index 2019.[8] Scotland was strongly represented in the European Regional Innovation Scoreboard 2019[9] rankings, confirming its long tradition of innovation. We know that having a thriving and dynamic innovation ecosystem is essential for improved productivity, competitiveness and sustainable economic growth. Our commitment to doubling Business Enterprise Research and Development (BERD) funding by 2025 will make Scotland an even more attractive partner for global innovation collaboration.

Scotland's Innovation Centres enhance partnerships between university and industry to provide an environment that supports the development of the next generation of business innovators, academics and entrepreneurs. Scotland has eight Innovation Centres in the areas of data, sensors and imaging, digital health and care, stratified medicine and industrial biotechnology.

Education in sparsely populated areas

There are around 850 schools in Scotland that are classified as being rural. Given common challenges stemming from rurality and remoteness, Scotland and the Arctic can learn a lot from each other in relation to education provision in sparsely populated areas, including by means of distance learning.

Particularly in rural and remote areas, digital technology can have a positive impact on raising attainment, tackling inequalities and promoting inclusion. Scotland can share the experience it has developed thanks to Glow, our national learning environment through which all learners and teachers have free access to digital tools to enrich education.

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is the UK's most northern university. It comprises 13 colleges and research institutions with more than 70 local learning centres covering a geographic area that approximates the size of Belgium. State-of-the-art online learning technologies enable UHI to deliver degree courses that are rooted in communities but have international reach. Universities based in Arctic countries, for instance the University of Northern British Columbia, are structured in a similar way, opening opportunities for mutual learning and exchange of best practices.

Going forward, we will:

  • Explore opportunities to support Scottish higher education institutions to foster involvement in UArctic's North2North mobility programme.
  • Engage with any Arctic partners who want to work with Scotland in relation to education provision in rural areas, drawing for example on the lessons learnt from the development of the University of the Highlands and Islands.
  • Encourage Scottish universities and research centres to collaborate on Arctic research by means of greater inter-institutional cooperation, including by promoting discussions between UArctic and interested Scottish institutions.
  • Encourage greater collaboration between Scottish and Arctic academic institutions across the many branches of Arctic research.
  • Continue, and further develop, marine science collaborations in the Arctic through Marine Science Scotland to support our national and international policy obligations.



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