A Bright Idea: Science and Independence

science

The reason I wanted National Collective to get involved with engaging the sciences and academia is because I believe a mathematical sum describing an element of the universe is no less beautiful and no less imaginative than any painting, sculpture or poem. Scots luminary James Clerk Maxwell created a formula, described as “one of the most beautiful in history”,  describing how electrical and magnetic fields interact to produce light, and “beautiful” is absolutely the correct word to use in its description. To be able to quantify and express a fundamental piece of the universe using mathematics is a wondrous thing. It was because of this idea I was so keen to garner an unlikely union between the academic and the creative. Scotland not only has a proud cultural identity, but a long list of incredible contributions to academia. 

Scotland has a long, proud history of intellectual endeavour. Voltaire once said “we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation (nous nous tournons vers l’Écosse pour trouver toutes nos idées sur la civilisation )”. The Scottish Enlightenment, borne out of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities, revolutionised science and helped forge the world as we know it. Lord Hume transformed empirical philosophy.  Maxwell, Kelvin, Napier, and so on laid the foundations upon which so much of modern physics is based. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over our past glories – but independence is not about the past. Independence is about the future, and what kind of contribution we want our home to make in the world.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been speaking to scientists from all over Scotland. Undergraduates, Bachelors graduates, PhD students, Masters students, engineers, biologists and zoologists. We all have a stake in this country and so I wanted to hear as many different voices from as many vocations and grades as possible. I was not disappointed. I simply asked three questions; why do you want independence for Scotland? How do you think independence would affect your discipline? Where do you want science to be in an independent Scotland? Here, I address the first of these questions.

Many spoke of democracy, and the potential of independence to completely reshape our nation’s government and the sciences’ representation within it. Alan Mackie[1] simply said “I support Independence because I am of the opinion that the decisions made for Scotland are best served by the people of Scotland.”. It sounds like a cliché, but it is an incredibly important point. The particular problems Scotland has can be addressed by the people who know most about those issues, and our assets can be best utilised by those who most understand them – the people of Scotland.

James Parker[2] spoke about independence being the “natural state of all countries”. There was a theme developing from many respondents that it seemed absurd that Scotland was trusted with some powers, but not others. “If we take a step back and really examine the situation we find ourselves in as a country, it’s pretty bizarre. We are told that yes, perhaps we are best to make these choices, but not those choices” (Magnus Davidson[3]). Decisions that were made even in agreement with Scotland’s vote meant that “we still see decisions made to meet the priorities of the economy of London and the south-east.”   “An independent Scotland, backed by a written Constitution, can decide priorities and make better decisions for Scotland.” Shaun Keegan[4] echoed a point I find myself constantly reiterating – “ I support independence as I feel it is the most effective way to produce the type of society I want to live in”.

Whereas Holyrood has a broadly centre-left consensus based on a cosmopolitan, proportionally representative parliament, Westminster’s agenda is tilted right by an overheated south-east and a first-past-the-post electoral system that breeds stagnancy and conservatism. Some people believe this can be reformed, fixed within the Union. Keir Liddle[5] refutes this. “My support for independence is a pragmatic reaction against a Westminster establishment that is itself so established it is an active force against reform. You can see that in the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum and the 40% rule, and more recently in the vacuous and dishonest campaign waged against the proposed AV reforms.

Westminster doesn’t want to change. Westminster, whether red or blue, seems increasingly entranced by the “big numbers” in the economy. With more thought to keeping profit flowing and simply redistributing taxes than to the kind of unequal and unbalanced society it creates.”

There was also a yearning to redefine our relationship with our neighbours. It no doubt seems distinctly unfair from an English perspective that we in Scotland are entitled to free prescriptions and free tertiary education, but when they come North to take advantage of our fantastic educational facilities, they have to pay. This is, of course, not Scotland’s fault but Westminster’s. A PhD student in Aberdeen (who wished to remain anonymous), “Morse”[6] said that she believed “maintaining links with the rest of the UK and the UK will make us a strong independent country and that cooperation and friendship is possible with an independent Scotland.”. Magnus Davidson also mentioned this, stating that “independence doesn’t mean we can’t build on our relationship as good neighbours following a Yes vote in 2014; we will still be trading power back and forth like most European countries do today.” As our nearest neighbours and dearest rivals, it is in nobody’s interest for us to dig a trench along the border and sail away from England – and nobody is suggesting we should. We will still retain social, familial and economic ties like many countries throughout Europe – we just won’t share a parliament.

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Graeme Sneddon (Degree in Biological Sciences from Cambridge)

Of course, the role of science in society was one topic that was consistent throughout all of the responses. Graeme Sneddon[7] said “Independence offers us the ability to make real changes to science and research policy in Scotland, and conversely offers us greater freedom to use scientific evidence to inform all areas of government in Scotland.”. In creating a new nation, we can completely reform the government of the nation and how it represents its people’s skills and aspirations. Morse spoke of how she wanted Scotland to be able to more fully exploit her area of expertise – the life sciences. “Scotland has a large and incredible world class community of Scientific research, specifically in Medicine and Immunology (the two disciplines I work within). However, stagnation and cuts to funding are becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. Research staff are struggling to find funding to continue ground breaking work. At the moment, roughly half a percent of government funding goes to scientific research. Imagine what we could do with just a fraction of a percent more.”

Keir Liddle [5] also expressed frustration at Scotland’s missed opportunities –

We already have world renowned universities and researchers so why aren’t we tapping into those more? Why aren’t there more high tech start ups in Scotland?”

“Imagine if instead of worrying if Grangemouth will survive in a global market companies were queuing up to invest in Scotland because of our high tech expertise in science, engineering and other fields?

Imagine if instead of trying to compete with emerging economies and cutting wages, we decided to compete with other high tech developed economies- selling our expertise, our genius and our inventiveness to the world to the highest bidder rather than just our toil for minimum wage?”

There is a fundamental difference in culture between Westminster and Holyrood. Holyrood has worked to maintain free tuition and improve student support, ensuring that education is accessible to all, regardless of means. As one of the older contributors, James Parker spoke from experience; “I benefited from fee payment and grants to see me through my university time. I would like to see a Scottish budget that includes adequate provision for students, so that no capable person is denied the benefits of higher education due to lack of funding or adverse home circumstances.”

We must not forget that it was Labour who introduced tuition fees to the rUK. It was Labour who then trebled them. It was the Conservatives and Lib Dems who then trebled them again. This isn’t a party political issue – it is a fundamental difference in priorities between Holyrood and Westminster-  a parliament that values Trident nuclear weapons but not free tertiary education. As a physicist it is particularly repugnant to see my discipline being used to create such abhorrent weapons of genocide and mass destruction.

That Westminster can justify spending £100bn to renew trident but only invest around £7bn a year for the sciences, while enacting swingeing welfare cuts targeting our most helpless and vulnerable,  is indicative of the disrespect shown not only to the sciences but to anyone outside of the wealthy, property-owning, share-holding, office-worker demographic Westminster believes we all should be in.

The one-size-fits-all Westminster parliament is simply not capable of fairly representing the diverse, complicated and unequal society the UK has become.

Scottish Independence could lead to a second Scottish enlightenment. One that not only excites and innovates but nourishes and aids the country at the same time. One that is respected and funded accordingly rather than frozen and cut.

One that builds a future for everyone.”[5]

Science has no borders. Independence will establish no barriers to scientific endeavour at all. “Science in this day and age is an international collaboration that knows no boundaries. You need only look at the authors at the top of a scientific paper to see the mix of scientists and research institutions from across the world. “ [3] Independence, however, gives us the means to give our scientists the best possible chance to compete in the global arena.

We won’t build a utopia (to suggest that’s even possible is foolish) but we don’t have to build a utopia to improve the majority of people living in Scotland’s lives.” [5]

Imagine a Scotland that produced its energy responsibly, cheaply and efficiently and co-operated with its neighbours to promote peace, humanitarianism, environmentalism and nuclear disarmament. Imagine a Scotland that legislated based on evidence, justice and fairness, not reckless right-wing ideology. Imagine a Scotland where researchers and scientists were encouraged to go into politics because their views were listened to and valued by a diverse, dynamic parliament.

Imagine a better Scotland.

Vote Yes, and let’s start building a better nation. 

Magnus Jamieson
National Collective

[1] Alan Mackie, Studying Masters in Educational Research Methodologies and will be starting a PhD next September looking at Social Justice, Young People and Unemployment in Scotland. Currently doing research into the role of performance indicators and their impact on teachers in Scotland.

[2] James Parker;  BSc in Biology, University of Strathclyde, MSc in Public Health Engineering, University of Strathclyde, PhD in Marine Biology, University of Leeds

[3] Magnus Davidson; University of Glasgow, BSc Microbiology, studying MSc with University of the Highlands and Islands in Sustainable Energy Solutions

[4] Shaun Keegan; University of Glasgow, BSc (Hons) Zoology

[5] Keir Liddle; Degree in Psychology, studying PhD in “Health Services Research”

[6] “Morse”  BSc Honours Biological Sciences (Immunology), Studying PhD in Medicine in Aberdeen

[7] Graeme Sneddon; Degree in Biological Sciences from Cambridge

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There are 2 comments

  1. fordetina9@gmail.com

    I am National Collective. As a life scientist, I’ve always believed that scientists are creatives. Also can we refute the Unionists argument that, as part of the UK, we get more than our share per head. Would someone point out the truth that, in the competitive funding environment of the UK research councils, we win more cause we’re better than the competition! Never mind monies from charities, the EU, etc.

  2. Erin Williams

    I’m a Scottish scientist working in animal health in Ireland. The Irish government has put huge amounts of funding into agricultural research which is excellent for the industry and the country. As an independent nation Scotland has a great opportunity to develop the agricultural industry, and other industries, with well funded research. I would love to see this happen as the potential in our wee country is massive.

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