Brain Drain for Scottish Universities post-Independence: Solving the Research Funding Need

Today’s Guardian article “Scottish universities braced for brain drain if country votes for independence: Senior education figures voice fears about loss of funding and departure of top scientists in the event of a yes vote” warned of the loss of scientists and other researchers if Scotland leaves the union.  This would result in further brain drain, which has been a problem that has plagued Scotland for a century if not longer.

Prof Richard Cogdell, director of the Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow, said: “I have had contact with staff who have said ‘if it’s a yes vote, then I would be looking to leave.'”….

Prof David Weller, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, said 80% of his centre’s work was in collaboration with other UK researchers and cancer charities. “There’s just no way if Scotland was a separate country that kind of arrangement could be sustained. There are huge concerns in the area I work in,” Weller said.

The Scottish Government, in turn, has promised that the current level of research funding will remain intact for Scotland.  However, this has not satiated the fears of academics.

Research Funding – Business Models, Imagination, and University Development Departments

The real issue with research funding has been the lack of creativity in imagining its source and revamping its business model as well as tying it in to innovation.  Moreover, Scottish universities have yet to develop excellent development teams that can reach out and take money off the table from foundations, wealthy family funds and high net worth individuals.

A new research funding model was presented by the Academic Entrepreneur (AE) last week during a discourse at the University of Edinburgh’s Entrepreneurship Club for instance.  While the entire research budget of the United Kingdom is a mere GBP 2 billion per year, the AE’s model which is tied to the immigrant investor visa programme as proposed, drives GBP 20 billion into Scotland’s research budget annually, and GBP 100 billion over a 5 year period. This is 10X the entire UK research budget.

The AE’s research funding model is but one of a number of creative proposals. The emergence of crowdfunding, let by such efforts such as and its research funding model, is another such area of innovation.

Scottish universities have also been leaving money on the table for a number of years and have failed to develop excellent alumni affairs and development functions. Still catching up to the United States in this regard, there is much to do in the mounting and executing of major university and research funding campaigns. This will not be done by embracing the status quo and the industry standards and practices, but instead breaking out into new territory.  It will require non-traditional hires, and paying for the best.

Another gap is relating research to innovation. Funding partners appreciate this match and want to invest in such directions. They want the research to result in innovations, including cures for the world’s pain, and new ventures that spur economic development. For example, we see Joan and Irwin Jacobs donating $133 million to Cornell NYC – Technion – Israel Institute of Technology to create the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute (JTCII). These funds helped pay for the innovative Runway Postdoc Program at Cornell Tech in New York City.  Such a program and others like it that are more innovation-focused can be set up in Scotland to leverage the research base and make funding packages more attractive to research contributors.

The potential for Scotland’s universities is $20 billion annually in research funding. With such a target of 10X the total entire UK research budget for universities, the discussion can start around how to make the pie bigger starting now, instead of arguing over the crumbs. This discourse goes with independence, further devolution or not. Scotland has devolved powers in education but has yet to optimize its university systems and its research. Big capital for research = power.  Such can only be obtained through ambition, keen strategy, imagination and a competitive disposition.


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