Franco-Scottish links in research, innovation and higher education

Overview of Franco-Scottish higher education and research partnerships including analysis and recommendations for furthering collaboration between France and Scotland.

4. Mapping and stakeholder engagement results

4.1 Franco-Scottish links database

The desk-based mapping exercise yielded a total of 596 individual research links between France and Scotland. These include research projects funded by national and EU agencies (with private and public partners) as well as networks and fellowships (Figure 8). A further 246 education links were identified, which include the Erasmus+ student exchange destinations and joint degree programme (university networks such as the European Universities were counted as network under the research database). Whilst those lists are far from exhaustive, they still allow a comprehensive overview of the links between the two countries.

Figure 8: Type of Franco-Scottish links (n = 596)
Pie chart showing the breakdown of the different types of Franco-Scottish research links (total sample size 596)

A vast majority of research links are funded through EU programmes (Figure 9). Note that this result may be somewhat biased by the fact that collaborations at the individual level are not included. Although funded at the national level through universities own grants and internal budgets, these links are not centralised and would therefore be too difficult to identify. Still, the importance of EU funding is not surprising as these schemes are designed to encourage international collaboration, whilst national funding tends to be focused on internal projects. Whilst Horizon is the major source of support for such links, other EU schemes also have a significant role in supporting Franco-Scottish research cooperation. The participation of the UK, and by extension Scotland, in such programmes should therefore be encouraged. Alternatively, national schemes encouraging international collaboration could be put in place to fill in this gap.

Figure 9: Origin of funding for Franco-Scottish research links (n= 596)
Pie chart showing the origins of funding for Franco-British research links (sample size 596)

When looking at the participation of organisations in research links, the major institutes and universities in both France and Scotland were unsurprisingly the most active in links between the two countries. The University of Edinburgh clearly ranks first with 159 projects, nearly half that of the second organisation (University of Glasgow). Whilst universities dominate the top 10 positions in Scotland, one research institute, the James Hutton Institute, does appear in 5th position, thus highlighting the importance of such actors aside from HEIs. In France, CNRS teams were the most involved with over 100 projects, although it is important to remember that most of these represent UMRs which will be based in universities (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Top 10 organizations involved in Franco-Scottish research links.
Bar charts showing the top 10 organisations involved in Franco-Scottish research links for Scotland and France

When looking at education links, the ranking changes drastically both in France and Scotland, as universities will have very different engagement strategies. In Scotland, the University of Edinburgh for example may be the biggest HEI but it has far less Erasmus+ agreements with France than Strathclyde and Glasgow. Similarly, the dominance of Paris based institutions is much weaker when it comes to Erasmus+ destinations for Scottish students (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Top 10 organizations with Franco-Scottish education links
Bar charts showing the top 10 organisations involved in Franco-Scottish education links for Scotland and France

Each link within the research database was allocated a unique subject field and sub-field. This classification can be quite arbitrary, especially projects which are multi-disciplinary or related to economic and sustainable development. Despite those limitations, this exercise allows to identify several fields in which research links between France and Scotland are particularly developed (figure 12).

Figure 12: Franco-Scottish research links by field and sub-field (n=596)
Treemap showing the breakdown of Franco-Scottish research links by scientific fields and sub-fields (sample size 596)

Medicine and health research is the most common field, with projects covering new drugs, imagery, treatment and diagnostic development. The Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Edinburgh are the most active in Scotland in this area, whilst in France the key partner is INSERM. The second major field is applied life sciences, and in particular research on agriculture, animal health, nutrition, and food. In this area, the key institutions are INRAE, James Hutton and SRUC. It is a particularly active field of strategic importance for both countries, which addresses the global challenges of climate change and economic recovery. Energy system is the third most important field, showcasing the salience of decarbonisation and green transports in France and Scotland. The main Scottish organisations involved in this area are the Universities of Strathclyde, Edinburgh and EMEC. French actors are Innosea (a marine energy consultant), Centrale Nantes and Electricite de France, which shows that industrial partners are attracted by research expertise in Scotland.

The database also allows an examination of the geographic repartition of research and education links. It should be noted that in the case of French research organisations, Paris is over-represented as many institutions will be logged under their head office, when the actual research could be based somewhere else in France. This is particularly the case for research institutes. Logarithmic scales have been used for the maps below to counterbalance this dominance.

Figure 13: Repartition of research links with Scotland (a) and GERD in 2019 (b) [8]
Maps of France showing the number of collaborations with Scotland (a) and the GERD in 2019 (b) per region

The first main finding relates to this geographical repartition of the research links between Scottish organisations and France. The regional GERD shows that regions are more active than others in terms of research and development, in particular Ile de France, Occitanie and Auvergne Rhone-Alpes (Figure 12b). Paris is of course a major scientific centre, but other cities benefit from high expertise through historic links with specific disciplines: aerospace in Toulouse, technology and innovation in Grenoble. Still, the French partners involved in collaborations with Scotland are spread out across the country. The regions mentioned above attract a good number of research links, but other are likewise active, especially coastal regions such as Nouvelle Aquitaine, Pays de la Loire and Brittany (Figure 12a). These strong connections may be the result of shared local interest and expertise around marine science and energy.

Figure 14: Repartition of research links in Scotland (a) and France (b)
Maps of Scotland (a) and France (b) showing the hotspots and repartition of institutions involved in research collaborations

The repartition of research links in Scotland shows a concentration in the central belt, which is not surprising given that the major universities of the country are in that area. Still, several other hotspots can be observed that correspond to organisations very active in international research: SAMS in Oban (West Coast) and EMEC in Orkney. Aberdeen also attracts several collaborations with French actors, thanks to its university and historical ties with the energy sector (Figure 13a). In France, the research hotspots are: Paris, Toulouse, Grenoble, Nantes, Bordeaux, Rennes, Lyon and Montpellier (Figure 13b).

4.2 Qualitative findings: barriers

Resources: overall, the most common challenge mentioned by stakeholders against increased Franco-Scottish collaborations is the lack of funding and time. Even if both parties are highly motivated, the relationship will cease the minute funding ends. Academia is a highly competitive environment, and whilst actors recognised the value of collaboration and international partnerships, at the end of the day researchers and HEIs have to go where the money is. Funding schemes and programmes such as Horizon or the Global Challenge Fund are therefore essential to support links between France and Scotland. Lack of funding is associated with lack of time and other resources which are themselves required to prepare applications for grants. This means that smaller schemes can sometimes be particularly impactful, especially when setting up a new collaboration, as the process is easier and will require less investment.

Brexit: the uncertainty brought by the UK's withdrawal from the EU was also a common cause of issues for stakeholders. Participant reported that Brexit had already impacted collaborations even before the end of the transition period, and especially their participation in EU programmes. Indeed, the number of successful projects for UK and Scottish partners under the Horizon 2020 scheme has been decreasing since 2015 (except in 2020 when Scotland saw a slight increase in its net contribution), whilst France has been increasing steadily since 2016 (Figure 15).

Figure 15: Horizon 2020 Net contribution (€) per year and per country [44]
Bar chart showing the evolution of the net contribution (€) to Horizon 2020 for France, the UK and Scotland from 2015 to 2020

Even if programme guidelines and rules for application panels clearly stated that the UK remained fully eligible and could not be discriminated upon, the uncertainty led many actors to become hesitant to include UK partners. Scottish actors would also be reluctant to put a lot of effort and resources in applications before knowing details of the UK's participation in EU schemes. Similarly, several participants encountered difficulties with staff recruitment, with EU candidates refusing positions due to the uncertainty over their right to work in the UK.

The UK's announcement to remain within the Horizon program was met with clear relief by stakeholders, as this scheme is designed for collaboration and therefore essential to support relationships across the Channel. Despite this good news, many participants were still awaiting further information on the practical arrangements of the UK's participation in Horizon before committing to new projects.

In addition, Brexit brought forward many other difficulties, especially around the circulation of people and goods. Visa requirements are likely to impact staff and student mobility given the extra cost and administrative burden. This means reduced access to dedicated facilities and fieldwork. Fluxes of equipment and samples will also be affected. For example, the plant specimens sent by the James Hutton Institute are now accompanied with a UK-based safety certificate, which is no longer sufficient for exports to the EU. This is likely to cause delays which will damage the viability of the samples.

Further to practical concerns, the impact of Brexit will extend to strategic objectives, as the UK will no longer be aligned to EU policies. Domestic replacement schemes may not be focused on international cooperation (see example of Turing), and will require dedicated resources. The UK will also lose access to the EU's public tendering system, thus reducing opportunities for Scottish companies to access calls. Overall, Brexit means less skills will come in, and less ambassadors will come out.

Covid: the research and education sector was impacted by the pandemic like the rest of the society. Many institutions had to re-direct resources to urgent projects, and many international collaborations were stalled as universities focused on the delivery of online teaching and other administrative tasks. Travel restrictions led to the cancellation of conferences and networking events. Whilst the digital format means that logistical issue can be avoided (some participants noted it can be difficult to access Scotland), and events can touch a wider audience, it also removes the opportunity for informal conversations.

Participants reported that online meetings were enough to keep their exiting contacts alive but are not suited to set up new collaborations. As previously mentioned, many Franco-Scottish cooperation links originate from informal contacts, such as a conversation around a coffee at the end of a conference session. Digital settings cannot replicate the creative environment of a live workshop. Participants raised the issue of funding schemes and large agencies not recognising the value of face-to-face interactions, especially when the pandemic pressures on travel came to reinforce the challenge of carbon footprint.

Strategy: amongst Scottish participant, a common theme was the lack of a national approach to research and international cooperation. Unlike France, there is no central repository of expertise (such as Campus France) nor common strategy (like the ANR), and devolution has made an already fragmented sector even more complex (although one could argue the French landscape is equally complicated). For example, the SFC does not have jurisdiction over the research institutes involved in the RESAS programme. Each institution has its own strategic priorities (both in areas of expertise and geographical reach).

There is little coordination around research objectives and international cooperation between the Scottish Government, public sector agencies (SDI, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scotland Europa), HEIs, research institutes and the groups like research pools and innovation centres. A notable exception is Connected Scotland, which brings together the British Council Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, SFC, the Scottish Government, Universities Scotland and Scottish Enterprise agencies. Its objectives are to develop joint working to support the sector, but this network remains focused on higher education and the development of student recruitment in emerging markets, and does not include research institutes.

Competition: another common obstacle is the competitive nature of academia and funding grants. Participants mentioned that intentions toward cooperation can sometimes be mistaken for competition, especially when research institutes are also involved in commercial activities. For example, BioSS has developed strong expertise in mathematical modelling for agriculture and would be willing to collaborate with INRAE on common academic project. However, it has been difficult for them to identify the right partner within the organisation as INRAE has nearly 270 research units and some of their teams see BioSS as a direct competitor for their industrial contracts.

Internally, whilst Scotland benefits from the reputation of the UK as a major research player, it also means Scottish organisations are in direct competition with other institutions in England, Wales and Ireland. Many French organisations do not differentiate between Scotland and the UK, although this is changing. This issue extends to competition between HEIs and research institutes within Scotland. Many partners from smaller institutions expressed concerns as the largest actors and consortiums tend to focus attention. Similarly, highest ranked institutions and established partnerships can monopolize funding and opportunities.

Communication: some stakeholders mentioned having difficulties to identify the right contacts and maintain them over time. Relationships rely on individuals, which make staff turnover, and the restructuring of the French sector in recent years[45] particularly challenging. Brexit also brought changes in responsibility, with international teams now taking over from EU departments when dealing with relationships with the UK. It is also more difficult for participants to find adequate partners outside of their usual circles in academia and specialist industry sectors, highlighting further the need for a centralised platform to showcase expertise. Communication issues extend to the lack of understanding of France and Scotland's respective funding structure and opportunities, and in particular information related to the changes brought by Brexit. Small grants such as the Hubert Curien Alliance have very little visibility due to their size, despite their potential to initiate more significant partnerships.

The language barrier was not mentioned as a major issue, as English is now widely accepted and spoken within the French scientific community. An exception would be in humanities and social sciences, as some theoretical concepts can be difficult to translate. A participant also highlighted that language could be behind the reluctance of small French businesses to take part in international projects, alongside a different corporate culture focused on local connections.

Recognition of international collaboration: linked to the lack of funding, this issue was mentioned mostly by Scottish actors in relation to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is the UK's system to evaluate research impact of British higher education institutions. Its objective is to provide accountability for public investment in research and achieve an efficient allocation of resources. In Scotland, the REF informs the value of the block grant each university will receive from SFC. Participants noted that the REF prioritises individual institutional performance rather than cross-university or international collaboration (even if papers get more citations if with international authors). External engagement and cooperation should be incorporated in the assessment. By extension, travel and networking should be recognised as key element of the academic craft (for ECR but also for more senior researchers). Sitting on an international panel is clearly a result of excellent research and expertise for example, but at the moment it is not recognised officially.

Challenges for education: the withdrawal of the UK from Erasmus+ brought issues specific to education and student exchanges, which are critical to skill development but also the development of youths' careers and network. French and Scottish partners unanimously expressed their disappointment at this decision, and highlighted the lack of reciprocity of its replacement, the Turing scheme. Indeed, the UK's programme will only fund outgoing students. In addition, France was not initially amongst the list of priority countries (the UK government later explained this was the result of an administrative error), and more generally the global agenda means that EU countries will now compete with other English-speaking territories.

Fees are at the heart of the issue around student exchange, as under the Erasmus+ framework incoming and outgoing students were exempted from tuition. A national agreement is unlikely given the business model and autonomy of Scottish universities in this area, and the Scottish Government confirmed it would not be able to continue to fund fees for EU students. HEIs will therefore need to set up individual bi-lateral agreements, which may jeopardise the existing links involving a low number of students and smaller institutions with limited resources. Timing has been complicated by the late release of the Turing scheme guidance, leaving HEI's very little notice to include the scheme in their recruitment season.

Furthermore, the Turing scheme only covers student exchange in higher education, when Erasmus+ includes strategic cooperation, staff mobility, internships, service learning, policy development, humanitarian work etc. for all stages of education from small children to adult learning. The new Erasmus+ programme also calls for more synergies with Horizon, in particular through European Universities alliances, thus recognising the importance of skills and cooperation for research.

4.3 Opportunities and recommendations

"Research does not stop at borders"

This research projected clearly demonstrated the value and breadth of links between France and Scotland. Whist collaborations have been severely impacted by Brexit and the Covid pandemic, all participants warmly expressed their willingness to continue to work together. Research and education partners are chosen due to their expertise, not their nationalities or geographical locations. All academics will engage in international relationships, as this is the best way for them to use and publicise their knowledge. Collaboration is an essential element of research, which foster innovation and should be encouraged at all stages of researchers' education and careers. This means supporting mobility of students, early career researchers, but also involve businesses and policy makers.

Common interests: France and Scotland already share a long history of cooperation, from the Auld Alliance through the Enlightenment, which continues today through a common commitment for green recovery and climate change mitigation. French stakeholders are increasingly aware of the distinctive expertise and priorities of Scotland, thus bringing a competitive edge which should be exploited. Brexit has led many organisations to seek and encourage bi-lateral opportunities to fill in the gaps left by EU programmes, and the continued participation in Horizon will continue to support collaborative activities. EU funding is an essential element of international cooperation, providing researchers with access to resources otherwise not available in their own countries, and the opportunity for actors to take on ambitious projects they could not tackle alone, and work across borders.

"International collaboration is indispensable to tackle global challenges"

The global challenges faced by the world will require cooperative solutions and encourage the alignment of French and Scottish research strategies. Both countries have committed to tackle climate change through COP21 in Paris and COP26 in Glasgow, and the international attention those events brought. Net zero, the transition to green economy, agriculture and food, are amongst the common themes of interest for researchers in France and Scotland. Energy systems, and in particular marine energy, also represent a major opportunity for shared research and industry partnerships. Scotland is a recognised expert in the field and shares with France an extensive coastline with excellent potential for deployment. Other major common themes include the fight against Covid; circular economy; anti-microbial resistance; robotics and AI; biosciences.

Networking support: Operational support for existing and new collaboration between France and Scotland will rely strongly on existing EU support, but it does not depend solely on such large-scale programmes. Small funding pots towards short-term scientific missions or networking activities to establish new contacts were amongst one of the suggestions from participants. Low-risk grants mean easy application, making them more open as they need less investment and preparation. Despite their small-scale, these grants will act as a starter pack for setting up new collaborations and demonstrate their value for future applications to other programmes, especially for ECR building up their network. To be effective, such opportunities need to be structured around a strict agenda and deliverables, requiring evidence of activity and impact. The COST action format is particularly efficient and could be adapted to bi-lateral networks. It also provides a guide for the involvement of industry and the public sector.

The rise in digital delivery and online meetings also brings opportunities for remote networking. This is particularly useful in the early stages of a research project, when partners are less inclined to spend time and resources on travel. Digital technologies also remove the obstacle of logistics, especially for stakeholders located in remote areas. Like with face-to-face events, this format requires to be structured around a shared objective to be efficient. This can be a shared project or a funding call, which will focus actors towards actionable points.

Information and communication: many stakeholders expressed a need for clear guidance on the existing and upcoming support for international collaboration. The uncertainty brought by Brexit reinforced the demand for clarity and proactive guidance related to the position of the UK in the different EU programmes, and what this means for day-to-day operations. This information needs to be communicated on both sides of the channel, and whilst participants realise information may not always be available, they appreciate having a single point of contact that would provide consistent updates. Proactive outreach and engagement should take full advantage of the diverse channels available: social media, conferences, international and national fairs and research events.

A possibility would be a shared platform showcasing information on Scottish expertise and funding system, based on the models of Campus France's research platform. The research pools and innovation centres have already started to work in this direction however the existing platform would benefit from the integration of other research actors and in particular non HEI institutes. This tool should be complemented with promotion of existing partnerships and opportunities for collaborative projects and funding, thus allowing stakeholders to find new organisations and individuals interested in similar themes. Participants also mentioned the potential formed by the French and Scottish diaspora and alumni networks, which represent a large source of informal contacts and links.

Strategic alignment and institutional agreements: at higher level, a key opportunity to support Franco-Scottish links, and international cooperation in general, lies in the alignment of nationally funded research projects and programmes. This could be done between the two countries through institutional agreements such as a joint funding calls between ANR and SFC/UKRI, or ministerial support towards the inclusion of Scotland within the European research community. Within Scotland, the sector would also benefit from a better integration of research strategies within Scottish Government priorities. A dedicated national perspective would tie up existing framework (export plan, economic strategy, green recovery etc.) and stakeholder actions. The difficulty lies in finding a way to unify the sector for enhanced representation abroad, whilst keeping the diversity of capabilities and objectives across all research actors.

The research pools, innovation centres and SEFARI have been successful in drawing attention on expertise rather than affiliation, however they will require further support to further develop international cooperation. The research pools' plans for their next funding call, if approved by SFC, will incorporate internationalisation as a key pillar. Actions will be based on an audit of international strategic relationships currently supported by partner universities. Better knowledge of existing links is indeed essential to support the development of future collaborations.

Further to a national plan or strategy, stakeholders involved in supporting links between France and Scotland (and international research partnerships in general) should develop activities and interactions with universities commercial engagement and internationalisation offices, as well as internationally focused public agencies. This includes SDI and the national Enterprise agencies, but also Scotland Europa, a membership-based organisation that promotes the countries' interests across the EU. In addition, Scottish actors will benefit from closer association and representation within the UK organisations working to develop international collaboration: the British Council, the Science and Innovation Network and Universities UK International. The latter recently published a white paper on the future of international partnerships[46], with findings and recommendations that echo many of this report.

Education opportunities: French actors recognise that Scotland has excellent universities and is attractive for students (because of the English language but also the culture). For example, 57.8% of outgoing student mobility from Aix-Marseille to the UK was in Scottish Universities. With the UK's withdrawal from Erasmus+, education opportunities will need to evolve into to bilateral arrangements, unless participation as a third-party country can be guaranteed. Like for research-based relations, this relies on time and resources, which may disadvantage smaller institutions and links that involve only a low number of students.

To replicate the economies of scale brought by Erasmus+, a national framework could be explored. Another solution may be a common "middleman" which would act as information broker and matchmaker, helping stakeholders from both countries to identify potential partners and opportunities. Regardless of the arrangement, funding will remain the core issue, especially for students coming to the UK. Regions in France may be able to provide scholarships, as they already support less privileged students with mobility grants. This however raises the issue of funding based on merit versus universal provision.

Further to classic student exchange, there is also scope for new type of mobility such as short-term programmes, or hybrid online delivery. Transnational arrangements (distance learning, branch campuses, joint degrees) are another option, and whilst other territories (Asia and Middle East) have until now been the priority for Scottish providers, there has been a sharp increase in Transnational Education agreements in the European Union, in particular through collaborative provision[47].

4.4 Suggestions for future research

This research project provides an overview of research and education links between France and Scotland and showcased the breadth and variety of collaborations between the two countries. The data collection was not designed to be exhaustive and quantitative findings should therefore only be considered as indicative. Whilst the range of sources currently means a comprehensive list is impossible, the increase in available data and unification under open portals could bring this objective closer in coming years. An example of these developments is the Horizon Dashboard and its interactive graphs and maps, which could inspire innovative formats for the delivery of future mapping exercise.

The overview presented in this report could also be further developed through an extensive exploration of international strategies of individual institutions and organisations, as well as regional plans in France. This should allow the identification of shared themes and priorities, thus paving the way for an integrated national strategy.



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