Research: Talent abundant among scholarly Scots

There is a proud history of scientific innovation north of the border. But, asks Philip Schofield, where are the jobs?
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The Independent Online
The telephone, mechanical reaper, fax machine, gramophone, "flashing lighthouse", television and logarithms were all invented by Scots. Penicillin, the electromagnetic theory of light, and the rare gases of neon, argon, krypton and xenon were discovered by Scots. They also founded colloid chemistry and pathological anatomy.

Some Scots are permanently linked in the public consciousness to their areas of research and development: James Watt with the steam engine, Sir Robert Watson-Watt with radar, JBS Haldane with genetics and evolution, Sir James Dewar with low-temperature physics and Lord Kelvin with the absolute scale of temperature.

It may seen surprising that a country with a population of 5 million should produce so many gifted scientists and technologists. But it has a long tradition of scholarship. For 250 years, until 1828, Scotland had four universities to England's two. Today, 40 per cent of Scots enter higher education compared with 31 per cent elsewhere in Britain. In fact, Scotland produces the highest number of graduates per capita in the EU, with only Norway and the US doing better worldwide.

If there is a superabundant supply of research and development talent in Scotland, what of employer demand? On the face of it, Scotland needs lots of R&D staff, having many hi-tech firms. There are about 190 firms in the biotechnology field, and the number is growing. Many electronic firms have set up in the area between Edinburgh and Glasgow, an area dubbed "Silicon Glen". Scotland now makes half of Britain's micro-chips and has more than 13 per cent of European chip capacity. Scotland is also home to five of the world's top eight computer manufacturers. It produces 35 per cent of Europe's PCs, 21 per cent of Europe's integrated circuits, almost 80 per cent of Europe's work-stations, and 65 per cent of Europe's ATMs.

But most of the biotechnology companies are small, and most of those in electronics have their R&D facilities in their base locations - mainly in the Far East or the US. Neither sector recruits large numbers of graduates.

As Dr Christopher Fraser, deputy director of the careers service at St Andrews University, notes: "Although most employers in Silicon Glen are taking on large numbers of personnel, they're not taking on many graduates. When Hyundai were looking to open up in Fife, they were looking to take on 20 graduates at most, and only three or four a year thereafter." He says most employers only recruit a handful of researchers: "A lot of the research has been done back at home in the Far East and they're not reinventing the wheel here."

The largest recruiter of R&D workers, outside the universities, is probably the central Government. Significant numbers are employed by the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Trade and Industry, the Department of the Environment, GCHQ, the Home Office, the Health and Safety Executive and the Department of Health. But virtually all government research facilities, other than those of the Scottish Office, are in England.

Major companies, too - such as British Telecom, Unilever, British Aerospace and most of those in the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries - have their R&D facilities south of the border.

Although there are many hi-tech companies in Scotland, Dr Fraser says, the number of graduates going into these industries "is pretty small compared with England". He says this is because there are no equivalents to BT, "who take on 50 to 80 graduates a year into their research laboratories". Overall, he feels, "a Scottish graduate wanting to work in a research environment would be fairly hard-pushed to stay in Scotland."

Careers advisers at other universities broadly agree. Douglas McEachan, of Edinburgh University, says, "We are a wee bit short of research and development outside the universities. Industrial research is weaker in Scotland than we would like, so a lot of our best scientists and engineers go down south."

Barbara Graham, director of Strathclyde University's careers service, suggests that Scotland proportionately has more university research places than England, but fewer in industry. She says: "If people are very interested in research and development in the hi-tech areas, well qualified candidates prefer to go where they're going to find a good research set-up."

Graham Nicholson, chief careers adviser at Stirling University, says opportunities north of the border are growing in small and medium-sized enterprises. He notes the growth in research consultancies, "particularly in the biotechnology field ... developing new products, processes, and drugs for the pharmaceutical area".

Despite the lack of places overall, some useful initiatives are under way. On 18 May a seminar for employers and academic staff on careers in biotechnology and research for graduates will take place at Stirling University.

Services to Software, a non-profit organisation based in Glasgow, is a joint initiative of Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian and Strathclyde Universities and the Glasgow Development Agency. As well as providing marketing, legal and other services, it helps software companies to introduce R&D activities. It has also launched a "graduates into software" initiative to promote the employment of newly qualified IT graduates: it maintains a database of graduates wanting to work in the industry, matches candidates and employers, and, where necessary, provides training to bring new recruits up to speed.

Scotland offers many advantages to English and overseas employers wanting to create an R&D capability. It has the world's third-largest concentration of graduates as a proportion of population. Competition for research skills is lower than elsewhere. Research has shown that while most English graduates prefer to work in high-cost London, Scots prefer to work in Scotland. There are close ties between Scotland's many universities and commerce. There is a strong network of enterprise agencies. Land and property costs are relatively low. And, above all, there is a culture of learning that has encouraged generations of innovators.