Vision for science and research collaboration: minister's speech

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead outlines vison at Science and Research Summit in Edinburgh. 

Thank you for coming to today’s event. This is possibly the first time that we have brought together, in one room, so many interests across the Scottish science and research community – from science centres and universities, to colleges and research institutes, as well as government research groups. You are all part of the Scottish science and research family.

Why come together? Because collaboration is a hallmark of science and research. We simply can’t make progress without it – across disciplines, across institutions, across borders. And I believe that we also need to collaborate more closely in the interest of Scottish science and research.

I want today’s event to be a catalyst, for us to act collectively as a sector:

  • to agree how to take forward a ‘Team Scotland’ approach to promote Scotland, at home and internationally, as a Science and Research Nation with the aim of protecting Scotland’s position as a global leader in science and research through collaboration
  • and to harness our combined expertise and international networks to address the challenges of the 21st century as defined by the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.

Science Nation concept

My vision is for Scotland to be a true ‘science and research nation’. I want every person in Scotland to recognise and value science and research as an integral part of Scottish culture.

This isn’t just about recognising pioneers of the past. It’s not just about celebrating those figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and previous Industrial Revolutions, who did so much to invent the modern world – though we should do so, of course.

For me, the concept of a science and research nation is wider than that.

It’s about recognising today’s world leaders in research and science. And recognising Scotland’s role in the current, fourth, Industrial Revolution.

It’s about inspiring our young people about the fantastic careers open to them in science and research.

And it’s about saying that there’s something about science, invention, innovation and research that’s intrinsically Scottish. It should be as recognisably Scottish as our landscape, tartan or whisky. And we should use our science and research excellence to promote Scotland, as much as we use those other Scottish cultural icons, to encourage people to visit, study, work and invest here.

Why does this matter?

Because the future well-being of our own nation, as well as the planet as a whole, largely depends on making the best of our knowledge and expertise:

  • to find innovative solutions to the challenges of the 21st century;
  • to grow our economy in a more inclusive, and more sustainable manner;
  • and to help us understand more about our world and beyond.

It is vital that Scottish business, government and wider society are able to harness and exploit the potential benefits of our world-leading research and innovation base, for the good of Scotland’s economy, people, environment, and reputation. There is not just an economic imperative at play here – but a societal and environmental one too.

From the climate emergency to the challenges of an ageing population, we cannot make any progress without science and research. Investing in our institutions and communities, supporting STEM learning, and inspiring our next generation of researchers are all part of my ambition to see Scotland as a Science and Research Nation.

STEM across Scotland

Since becoming Minister for Science less than a year ago I have seen so many examples of the full spectrum of science across Scotland, in schools, universities, colleges, research institutes and companies.

I’ve met robots at North Lanarkshire College; seen the future of farming at the James Hutton Institute; and visited primary and secondary schools – most recently McLaren High School in Callander – that are promoting a STEM-positive culture, making the connection between studying STEM subjects and understanding the world around us, as well as the progression to future employment, training and advanced learning.

I’ve visited the Lyell Centre with expertise in geology, and seen a ground-breaking partnership between a distillery, a university and a marine environment charity. I’ve been in some of our science centres and seen how people of all ages can be inspired by science, every day.

I’ve met young people and teachers in primary and secondary schools, and students, lecturers and researchers in colleges and universities. I’ve seen school pupils rewarded for their STEM skills through competitions and other initiatives. And I’ve met students here at the University of Edinburgh, working together on the international Space X Hyperloop Pod transport engineering challenge, representing Scotland along the way.

At one of my first engagements as Science Minister I met one of Scotland’s Nobel Prize winners, Professor Peter Higgs, whose work at this very university earned him perhaps the biggest prize in science and research.

And just yesterday I visited the University of Abertay, where I saw at first hand the value of collaboration between academia and business, to build on Dundee’s reputation for videogames and drive growth in this important sector.

What I have seen in the last nine or ten months has been truly inspirational:

  • Science and research making an impact in every corner of Scotland and beyond.
  • Science and research shaping our lives for the better.
  • Science and research helping to protect our environment for future generations.
  • And science and research providing the tools for Scotland to continue to make its mark in the global economy and society we all live in.

All of this science and research, innovation and discovery – in every variety – is happening right here in every corner of our north west European nation of 5.4 million people.

Scotland punches well above its weight on research, science, and innovation. We are recognised and respected for this around the world. This isn’t just an assertion. It’s a fact. Let me give you just one statement to illustrate it.

Scotland has 8% of the UK’s population, but 10% of its researchers, producing 12% of the UK’s research output.

Just think about that for a moment.

We have 8% of the UK’s population, and produce 12% of the research papers produced in the UK – that’s 50% more than we might be expected to produce if you were looking at population size alone.

This is something we should be proud of. And we should all be champions for Scotland’s science and research excellence, at home and overseas. I know that many of you here today are already doing just that. You’re great ambassadors for Scotland’s science and research excellence when you talk to your research partners and when you keep in touch with international colleagues and alumni.

I want to see those personal connections become the building blocks for something special. Imagine how powerful a network we could build if we could find a way to harness and capitalise, collectively, on those individual connections that we all have. We could create a global web of Scottish influence, to make the most of our reputation and flair for science and research and make it a key national strength.

So let’s start with this room, and come together as Team Scotland to maximise our impact by acting together in the best interests of the Scottish science and research sector.

A common goal

Let’s not forget that there’s not just national reputation at stake here. Scottish science and research have a huge role to play in helping us to meet our obligations to the world, and to our future generations.

As you may know, the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework is closely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.

The UN has been very clear that achieving sustainable development calls for concerted efforts with a role for the whole of society including science and research organisations.

But to add value to Scotland’s contribution to safeguard the future of our planet, we need to work together.

Building on the Enlightenment

From the Enlightenment through to the range of Industrial Revolutions, the people of Scotland have shaped the modern world through science, invention and innovation.

Those pioneers continue to echo through the ages and inspire new generations; look at the events being organised this year to commemorate James Watt’s bicentenary, or the fact that Mary Somerville – known as the ‘Queen of 19th century science’ – is the first female scientist to be featured on a British banknote, following a public vote on the issue.

Scotland’s current excellence in science and research

Everyone in this room is following in the footsteps of those giants. You are now Scotland’s global leaders in science and research. And, as we know, Scotland continues to make an impact on the world as a direct result of our science, arts, research, invention, and innovation.

Of course, increasingly, this includes interdisciplinary research, combining STEM subjects with social science, arts and the humanities. In the context of the Fourth Industrial revolution, the lines between disciplines are becoming increasingly blurred. And I’m proud that Scotland is at the forefront of erasing these lines.

Our reputation for science, research and innovation leadership is founded on both the excellence of our research and the basis of our openness and willingness to collaborate with partners across the globe.

I was reminded of the global nature of science and research on a recent Connected Scotland mission to Berlin, where I was joined by many representatives from the higher education sector.

Again and again, we come back to the importance of personal relationships and how we might capitalise on them for Scotland’s benefit.

It is more crucial than ever that we build relationships and communicate with the wide network of global scientists and researchers who collaborate with Scotland – not just Scots working abroad or alumni of Scottish institutions. We need to make sure they know this vital fact:

Scotland is a pro-European, pro-science nation which is open for business and open to helping make the world a better place.

These are major achievements of our universities, but they would not be possible without close partnership with research institutes, NHS Scotland and other organisations involved in science and research in Scotland.

Today I want to build on this success.

We start from a position of strength in Scotland. According to the recent report published by the Scottish Science Advisory Council:

  • Our research output is very high quality. Scotland produces more papers that are in the world’s top 1 per cent than any other part of the UK.

Looking forward

Our ambitions for Scotland as a science and research nation can’t be delivered by the Scottish Government alone. I hope everyone in the room will recognise they have a part to play too, by continuing to work across disciplines, across sectors and across borders to make sure that science and research benefit from a truly ‘Team Scotland’ approach.

My ambition is to see Scotland recognised around the world as a leading science and research nation, making the best use of our science and research excellence to tackle the world’s big challenges and delivering benefits to our country and your institutions.

My message to you is this: be bold. Be radical. I have an open mind on how we act collectively to make the most of our national brand. The damage is already being done by the prospect of Brexit. If it goes ahead we will have a lot of work to do, and we will have to work to our strengths, together.

Thank you for taking part in today’s event. I hope you will join me in contributing to the dialogue around how we all can work together to achieve this ambition.

I’m afraid I need to leave before the end of this event, due to commitments in Parliament. But I look forward to hearing about the outcome of today’s discussions – and exploring what steps we might take together to build a long-term collaborative approach across science and research in Scotland.


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