Independence Minded? receives a lesson from Academics Together

A number of leading figures in academic research were joined by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and David Steel in Edinburgh to argue for remaining part of the UK, including Nobel Prize-winner Sir Paul Nurse. We talked to him, and heard from the others about why interconnectedness is so important to maintaining Scotland’s strong research reputation.

Michael MacLennan
· 6 min read

When making arguments for and against Scottish independence, it’s always likely that your credentials will be questioned. However, for the speakers at the Academics Together event in Edinburgh in July — ranking amongst them a former Prime Minister and a Nobel Prize-winner — credentials were never going to be too much of a problem.

The group are affiliated with Better Together and campaigning for a No vote in September’s Scottish independence referendum, and lined up to speak were: Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize winner; Professor Hugh Pennington CBE, Emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen; Sir David Carter, Chairman of the Board for Academic Medicine in Scotland; Lord David Steel (he doesn’t care too much for the title), the First Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament; and last but certainly not least Dr Frances Dow CBE, former Vice Principal of the University of Edinburgh, who was acting as host. It’s fair to say that they share a fair number of other accolades, but if I started listing all those we would probably never get to the video…

Compared to other events I had attended, the Academics Together event was very much set up with the media in mind. The Saturday morning setting at the University of Edinburgh had attracted a less-than-capacity audience — perhaps surprising given the attendance of Brown and other notable figures — but then this wasn’t so much about attracting a crowd as it was about making sure that the cameras of the BBC and STV were there, as well as journalists from national newspapers eager to find out why academics might be banding together to say No Thanks to the prospect of an independent Scotland.

So why did the subject matter so much to Nurse, who doesn’t currently live in the country? He explained: “I wanted to come back to Edinburgh to talk about independence and its effect on research because I care deeply about both Scotland and research, particularly biomedical research.

“I care about Scotland because I worked in this university for seven years, and my time here laid the foundations for my entire career. I care because both my daughters were born here, and are Scottish, and are proud to be Scottish.

“I care because I made many friends here, who are still my friends, and I visit frequently. And I care because scientific research matters — and is very important to Scotland and the UK.”

He added: “Scientific research is crucially important for knowledge-based countries such as ours. We cannot rely on cheap labour or massive natural resources. We have to rely on our brains.

“We need the highest-quality scientific research to drive our economy, to improve our health and the quality of our lives, to protect the environment and the maintain stability.”

You might imagine that a series of academics speaking at length about the importance of political unions might not make for the most entertaining of events. However, as the first to address the audience Brown was much more fun than you might expect, his dry sense of humour coming across better in person than it can sometimes do in print. A stack of his books ready to be signed afterwards, he pointed to the generous funding for research that Scotland currently received — a theme echoed by others — and occasionally dipped into his wider arguments for remaining part of the UK.

For the most part the arguments centred around research, and how funding and collaborations could be put at risk if Scotland were to go it alone. Brown reeled off a list of famous national icons whose work was done in conjunction with others from around the UK, French talked about the generous amount of funding that Scotland receives as part of the Union — and what could be lost with independence — while Carter revealed his thoughts that most academic heads were against separation, and Pennington talked about how decisions made in Scotland could currently also be benefit to the rest of the UK.

Steel’s arguments were less academic, and more about the possibility of increased powers for the Scottish Parliament — “Donald Dewar was right when he said that devolution was not an event, it was a process.” — and of a written constitution.

Taking place in a lecture hall, it felt hard to avoid the feeling of being formally taught rather than finding yourself informed and entertained, but it still proved to be an interesting and at-times fascinating hour and a half. And though there was plenty of talk about what might be lost, that’s not to say that the positives weren’t also stressed. These were speakers who loved what Scotland had to offer, felt that there were rewards from being part of the Union (and not just in terms of their titles).

“Look, if Scotland goes independent it will do its best,” responded French during the Q&A. “It’s a good place to work, it will attract people.

“But if you look at the United States, one of the reasons why it’s successful is not just the funding, but the ease of permeability across that huge nation. The United Kingdom is of course not the same size, but it will be smaller if Scotland separates, and Scotland will be very much smaller.

“I think somebody coming from overseas might think twice about coming to such a small country, whereas they may feel more comfortable about coming to the whole of the United Kingdom, with flexibility and permeability from one place to another.

“Scotland will be able to attract scientists from overseas, because it’s a very good place to work. It will simply do better, in my view, as part of the United Kingdom.”

The UK provides a critical mass of scientists, it provides a mixture of different ways of approaching scientific problems, it provides a range of different ways of funding. All of this helps in having a high-quality scientific research endeavour, not only in Scotland but in fact throughout the UK. We all profit from what we have in place, which is actually the best scientific endeavour in the world, second only to the United States.

Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize Winner and President of the Royal Society

Independence Minded? is a series of Scottish referendum portraits by Michael MacLennan. For more, and

Independence Minded?

A non-partisan multimedia portrait series telling the stories of those taking a stand in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum in September, created by Michael MacLennan.

    Michael MacLennan

    Written by

    @m_maclennan. Worked at — and written, shot, and created content for — Red Bull, ITN, BBC, STV, & The Herald.

    Independence Minded?

    A non-partisan multimedia portrait series telling the stories of those taking a stand in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum in September, created by Michael MacLennan.