IT may be an old saying, but it’s an accurate one: knowledge really is power. Nowhere is this more apposite than in the fight against climate change.
With its large repository of expertise, intelligence and awareness, Scotland is in a prime position to be both a leader and an exemplar in the race to net zero. This is principally because of the excellence of its educational institutions. Our universities in particular are among the best in the world.
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) helps to drive the sector and to maintain and build its international reputation. It currently has an annual budget of £1.9 billion of which nearly £300 million is allocated to research and development.
While by no means all that money will go towards climate change – or even to science – it does have a significant impact and will help to leverage further research investment from a range of sources.
Dr Stuart Fancey is SFC’s Director of Research and Innovation. “We believe that universities and colleges in Scotland are incredibly important instruments in affecting any change, as that’s where ideas and skilled people come from”, he says. “If we are to address the myriad of challenges the climate emergency poses for us, then we are going to need those who can turn ideas into practice.”
Knowledge has to be translated into practical adjustments to our technology, behaviour or government policy, he adds. “That process, which might include innovations along the way, is incredibly important. What matters is that Scotland invests in all this activity so that we can solve problems or discover the path that will take us to a more sustainable society.”
The sustained investment made in research in our institutions provides a particularly rich opportunity to make a contribution to alleviating the effects of climate change, Dr Fancey believes.
“We have high quality of research across relevant areas as well as rich training of highly skilled people who are going to be essential to create the jobs of the future and to take them up. We can be confident that these jobs will be somewhat different to those in the past.”
The depth and quality of Scotland’s research base across a range of areas combines with first class training and education provision, allowing our education institutions to collaborate with governments, NGOs and private companies nationally and internationally.
“In many respects, Scotland can lead the world. We hope that we can set an example because of our unique combination of circumstances, not all of which are about education. We are also very fortunate with our natural resources such as our wind, our land and our offshore position.” There is a strong collaborative culture in this country, he says, which has been built on over the years. “We have groups of researchers in areas like environmental science and energy, and these groups are visibly evolving to become more and more multidisciplinary.
“They are becoming more and more concerned about the big challenges in areas such as health and climate change, and we are encouraging that. There is also a connection between the research community and the world in which that research can be useful, informative and helpful.”
These connections are supported through the network of innovation centres. This grouping of seven different bodies links together businesses, university experts, the public sector and economic development agencies in order to forge new networks and so accelerate advances in technology and innovation.
The Scottish Funding Council founded this pioneering network – which draws strongly on the country’s research excellence – back in 2012 and continues to be its major financial backer. “These are centres of expertise, employing people who understand both the academic and commercial policy environments. “They support and work with universities in creating bespoke and relevant training courses at postgraduate level to support industrial needs, acting as focal points for government and industry bodies as well as for collaboration and inward investment opportunities.
“In the context of climate change, the network is proving to be an extremely wise investment – as the pace of change accelerates, the innovation centres are becoming more and more necessary.”
Dr Fancey explains that the Scottish Funding Council has an extremely broad role in supporting common responses to the climate emergency. “As part of this, it is important that Scotland collaborates internationally.
“We’re not alone in this challenge, and we’ve been very pleased that over the last few years we have been particularly prominent in international project work with developing countries.”
Scotland and its education institutions already have a strong global reputation as a partner of choice in problem solving and this is particularly true in the area of tackling climate change. “For example, the wonderful work we are doing in areas such as building hydrogen economies and offshore power generation from waves – that’s all being watched by other countries.
“We want to attract people to come to Scotland who can develop businesses that can thrive as part of the green economy. We also want them to come for their education and to live here because they want to be in a country that takes its role in the global net zero economy seriously.
A further benefit in both research and knowledge exchange, he adds, is the existing reputation of Scotland as a place to live, to be educated, to carry out research and to do business. “It’s important that we bring people here – it enriches our society and helps us to build an environmentally sustainable, net zero carbon future economy and society.” Dr Fancey points out that the transition to net zero has to be a just one.
“It’s no use us reducing our emissions to zero if we impoverish or leave behind people on the basis of their social circumstances, geography or other factors. “We support institutions all over Scotland and it’s extremely important to us to be seen as a force for equality. “We know that education is one of the greatest ways of improving life chances, so it can be one of the helpful forces in achieving that just transition. “We are particularly interested in research – in what our universities, social scientists and others can do to help the government in policy terms. “We need to make sure that the changes that are required in areas such as housing, heating, transport and jobs and behaviour are enabled and supported in ways that allow us to maintain and increase the social equity of the country.
“That’s our vision – to ensure that educational resources are a force for good”
Trailblazing projects driven by SFC funds
THE Scottish Funding Council is a hugely important organisation with its remit and activity going far beyond education: it also boosts culture, the arts, science, industry and the economy and plays an important part in giving the country a competitive edge internationally.
Its promotion of research and knowledge exchange in particular helps to make Scotland’s higher education institutions some of the best in the world. It invests nearly £300 million of its £1.9 billion budget annually in research and innovation.
This investment is of huge social, economic and cultural value and is essential to our ability to tackle challenges and opportunities both now and in the future.
Research and innovation work is fundamental to Scotland’s reputation and to our ability to attract international students, inward investment, leveraged funding and collaborative networks and to work and make our presence felt internationally.
The research carried out here has helped us to become a global leader in a variety of disciplines including precision medicine, quantum technology, photonics, nanofabrication and data. This leads on to innovation, increased business and ultimately to wealth creation.
Some 80 per cent of SFC’s total research and innovation funding – around £243 million – is invested through the Research Excellence Grant. This provides the investment needed to allow the country’s research community to pursue the sort of work that can lead to major breakthroughs.
It also helps with capacity and continuity within the university research system, allowing institutions to leverage external research investment from a range of different sources.
However, it is not just the universities that have an important role to play in encouraging knowledge transfer. Colleges, too, add real value as they stimulate innovation through the close links they have to business and industry.
In particular, they enjoy a strong relationship with small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) which are one of the main engines of the economy.
There are a number of other initiatives involving the Scottish Funding Council including the innovation centres, Interface, the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland and the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc on the site of the former tyre plant in Dundee.
The SFC also directly supports institutions to work collaboratively with each other in support of external partners through the University Innovation Fund (UIF). Separately, the Research Pooling Initiative (RPI) was established in 2005 and has also been a powerful investment in collaboration.
It has helped bodies to achieve critical mass in a number of key disciplines including informatics, life sciences and marine science. Another scheme, the Innovation Vouchers Programme, has helped more than 1500 businesses work with academics for the first time.