Science and Scottish Independence


What makes National Collective important is its unique perspective on the referendum. All too often, the arts are pushed to the side and ignored as trivial or redundant, but National Collective has successfully challenged preconceptions to become, ironically, an almost mainstream player in the debate. Its success can in no small part be attributed to their non-partisan nature – unrestricted by party policy there is a fearlessness to what they can say and do, and this freedom allows a degree of flair, wit and charm into the debate which just isn’t present in the media or Parliament. 

However, where the Arts have successfully engaged with the Independence debate, the Sciences have abjectly failed. I spoke at a debate at Edinburgh University concerning Higher Education, Science and independence. I was speaking with Marco Biagi MSP against Dr Elaine Murray MSP and Professor Hugh Pennington in an obscure chamber in the Teviot Hall in Edinburgh University. The event was held as part of the Edinburgh University Chemistry department’s 300th anniversary celebrations and I was there as an undergraduate Physicist from Heriot-Watt University, speaking against a Professor and an MSP with a Doctorate. To say I was an underdog would be somewhat of an understatement. What struck me most about the event, though, was the lack of attendees whom I would regard as peers. There were maybe forty people at most and the average age was quite a few years beyond my own. Honestly, I was far from surprised. I study at Heriot-Watt university, which itself lacks in any way whatsoever a political culture. There are no affiliated political societies. The Debating Society held a debate concerning Scottish Independence when I was in first year – almost three years ago now – and only about 8 people turned up.

Why is this? In no small part it can be attributed to the fact that Heriot-Watt is a University which specialises in STEM subjects. In my personal experience, perhaps a disengagement from politics is to be expected from scientists and engineers. It is not for want of imagination or creativity that the sciences have not engaged with the debate quite as much as the arts. Einstein was said to have conceived his theory of relativity based on a dream on which he was riding a beam of light and watched as the shape of the universe changed around him. From an apple falling onto his head, Newton conceived gravity. As scientists we perhaps operate in a way completely opposite from that of an artist. We look at something physical, apply a method to it and end up with something abstract. We look at a ball falling, apply mathematics and calculate the magnitude of gravitational acceleration, for example.

To be a scientist is to look at the world with a particular kind of of curiosity. It is hard to be concerned with constitutional minutiae while you study a black hole tearing apart a cloud of gas on the other side of the galaxy. Scientific investigation breeds a certain degree of nihilism within a person. As physicists, we study the fundamentals of the Universe, from the atom to the black hole, and we look to understand the mechanics of everything from the stars, the planets, roses and waterfalls, to Anas Sarwars. We’re just smart apes flying through space on a big hulk of rock, who cares where the seat of power is when in a few billion years the sun’s going to consume the Earth and everything on it?

The sciences see things macroscopically. Ultimately, as far as we are concerned, it can be argued that it doesn’t really matter which government is in power because the sciences are almost as under-funded as the arts – especially in the UK, which is one of the lowest investors in science in the EU. We spend only 1.7% of our GDP on science compared to 3.6 % in Japan and 2.6% in Germany, not to mention Westminster’s derisory investment in things like renewable energy. Government’s relationship with science is, and always has been, strained. We look at areas like drug policy and climate change, where scientific advice is almost routinely ignored not just in the EU but worldwide, and to be a scientist, environmentalist or drug policy campaigner is to almost certainly fly in the face of Government policy.

If Yes can offer scientific minds and environmentalists the promise of funding, a talent base and policies which do things to tackle areas like waste, climate change and medical research, there is a whole sector of society who are open to persuasion. We need to put forward the evidence and offer a vision to the sciences where they are free to pursue research projects with a government that will back them financially and listen to and value their contribution – not freeze funding and ignore them when the science disagrees with NIMBYs and braying Middle Englanders. I fully believe the scientific community in Scotland will prosper following independence – we just need to tear them from their microscopes, telescopes and computers long enough to let them hear what we have to say.

Magnus Jamieson
National Collective