One Year On: Science in Scotland Post-Devolution

On 6 May 1999, Scotland voted for its first parliament in nearly 300 years. One year on, what does this momentous event mean for scientists in Scotland? Hilary Marshall reports.

At the time of the election, the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh presented a number of recommendations to the new Scottish Executive. Firstly, that the Parliament adopt an explicit policy to sustain Scotland's role in the U.K. science base, whilst promoting greater regional efforts to benefit from it. Secondly, they recommended the appointment of both a senior minister and a senior scientist of international standing to advise the parliament on science policy. Lastly, it suggested that the new parliament should take steps to ensure that it had access to sources of authoritative and independent scientific advice to underpin its scrutinising and legislative roles.

The Executive have gone some way toward meeting those recommendations by setting up a Science Strategy Review Group, comprising 15 top scientists and chaired by Eddie Frizell, head of the Scottish Executive Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department. The group's report was published on 13 April. At the same time, Henry McLeish, minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, announced a consultation based on the report. Key questions include how to foster technology transfer and uptake, how to stimulate entrepreneurship, and how to target investment in science and technology.

Young scientists embarking on a career in science will be relieved that the issue of how to maintain the skill base, and specifically to provide adequate career paths for research staff, was raised in the report. It was acknowledged that efforts are being made to resolve the problem of short-term research contracts both at the U.K. level and within Scotland by the Scottish Higher Education Funding (SHEFC). However, the report felt that increased linkages between research and industry, and the teaching of commercial awareness, would help in facilitating career opportunities for scientists.

The report also poses the question of how to put in place a Scottish scientific advisory system, which is integrated into existing U.K. and European structures, and which ensures that the best scientific advice on specifically Scottish issues is available to Scottish ministers. The Scottish Biology Forum may become a source of such advice. It consists of Scottish representatives of the learned societies that form the U.K. Life Science Committee, together with representatives of other organisations such as the Institute of Biology. Simon van Heyningen, chair of the forum, welcomes publication of the report and hopes that "the forum will play an important advisory role to the Executive."

So, much has yet to be decided. And now is the time for scientists in Scotland to have their say in the development of government policy that will ultimately affect their future.

Comments on the report should be e-mailed to Avril Davidson by 30 June 2000. The Scottish Biology Forum will be making its own response.

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