JUST at a time when Scottish research and development is more successful at attracting European Union investment than ever before, along comes the threat of a hard Brexit to possibly cause a huge setback in a sector where Scotland is a world leader. For instance, Scotland produces world-class research and development (R&D) in life sciences with around 600 Scottish organisations either directly or indirectly linked to the sector, which employs more than 32,000 people — life sciences alone generate more than £3 billion a year for the Scottish economy. It is estimated that some 23 per cent of researchers in our higher education institutions and life sciences companies are from the EU – but some areas of research, such as artificial intelligence, have a particularly high number of EU nationals.

The latest Royal Society report UK research and the European Union makes it clear that the proportion of research income distributed from the EU to UK universities has been increasing and Scotland has done particularly well.

Since 2014, almost £250 million has been secured by Scottish organisations from the EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

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Between 2014 and 2015 alone, Scottish universities secured £94 million from various EU sources, including EU governments, charities, business and others, making up 9.4 per cent of their total research income.

In a hard Brexit, the UK Government says it will match any research funding that our universities and other organisations lose, but how much and for how long? After all, since 2010 there has been a drop in UK Government funding for research through the Higher Education Funding Council and the research councils, though income from other sources including the EU and the private sector have made up for that.

In a recent interview, Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at the Aberdeen, said that Scotland “punches above its weight” in gaining research funds.

He told Holyrood magazine: “We do in Scotland and so does the UK as a whole. In fact, the UK gets more money than anyone except Germany, which of course has a much bigger population. That is the situation at the moment but of course, what will happen Brexit-wise is very difficult to predict.

“The Brexit vote has really put a black cloud over everything. And of course Horizon 2020 is a big source of money. All Scottish research universities benefit from it. Edinburgh does particularly well, Glasgow does well, then Dundee, Aberdeen and St Andrews get less but they all get money from it, and that money will stop if we don’t get that deal as an associated member.”

Referring to government assurances on match funding, Pennington said: “We don’t know how long that would go on, though. It would be for existing programmes, already in the pipeline, or any new programme with two or three years to run, but after that it is anyone’s guess what would happen.

“It would depend on the state of the economy and political will and all that kind of stuff, and I don’t think anyone is particularly optimistic that everything will be fine in ten years’ time. I think the general feeling is that there are hard times ahead and we should be looking at what we can plan for.”

Universities Scotland, the organisation which represents the 19 universities and higher education institutions, told The National: “We seek the closest possible research relationship with the EU, supporting our collaborative networks with our European neighbours.

“Scottish higher education is a world-leader in research and development and it is in the mutual interest of Scotland/UK and European partners that we remain an active and engaged partner in research strategy.

“We seek continued participation in European Framework Programmes for research and innovation.

“Within that, excellence-driven project funding through the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme for researcher mobility are top priorities. “We seek continued close collaboration in European research networks whose membership is wider than the EU such as CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory.”

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Shirley-Anne Somerville recently said: “I am deeply concerned about the potential impact of a hard Brexit on our research sector.

“Scottish universities and research institutions remain committed to collaborating with our European partners and attracting the best international talent – but have been clear that this requires continued access to the single market and EU funding.”

It may be that the UK Government will be able to persuade the other 27 member states in the EU to let Britain have what is called ‘assisted’ status for EU research programmes, but that would involve the UK paying into EU budgets and the Tory Government doesn’t want that.

And why would the EU member states give the UK any concessions? That remains the biggest Brexit question of them all.