James Watt invents his steam engine

The past, present and future of science in Scotland

For a country of only 5.4 million people and a mere 78,000 square kilometres, Scotland certainly punches above its weight when it comes to scientific accomplishment.

The quest for scientific discovery is as much part of Scotland’s DNA as the poetry of Burns, the sound of the bagpipes or the breathtaking natural beauty of the country’s diverse terrain.

Indeed, the roll call of famous Scottish scientists is essentially a whos-who of groundbreaking scientific trailblazers. Watt. Bell. Fleming. Baird. The list could go on ad infinitum.

Without these Scottish innovators, the world we live in would be a very different place indeed. But while the history of science in Scotland is rightfully lauded, the current achievements of the country’s scientists tend to go under the radar. 

In this article, we’ll trace the proud lineage of Scottish science, uncover ongoing developments in Scotland’s STEM sector, and anticipate an exciting future for this dynamic Celtic nation.


A time-honoured scientific tradition

Establishing scientific roots

The origins of Scottish ingenuity stretch far into history, from Neolithic engineering on Orkney to the 16th-century undersea coal mining techniques of Sir George Bruce of Carnock.

However, the country’s first instances of proper empirical science as we know it today can be traced back to the 18th century.

Two of the first prominent Scots to follow the modern scientific method were the geologist James Hutton (1726-1797) and the physicist/chemist Joseph Black (1728-1799). Hutton’s work played a key role in establishing geology as a modern science, while Black is best known for his discoveries of magnesium, latent heat, specific heat, and carbon dioxide.

The breakthroughs made by Hutton and Black — who incidentally were close friends — would firmly establish Scotland’s reputation as a hotbed for scientific innovation during the Age of Enlightenment.


The driving force of industry

Hot on the heels of these early pioneers was their contemporary, the Greenock-born mechanical engineer and chemist, James Watt (1736-1819). Thanks to his steam engine, Watt played a pivotal role in kickstarting the Industrial Revolution — arguably the most important shift in human history since the discovery of agriculture.

Enhancing the earlier Newcomen steam engine of 1712, Watt’s steam engine proved far more efficient and cost-effective than earlier models. Unlike the Newcomen machine, Watt used a separate condenser which permitted the steam cylinder of his machine to remain hot at all times. 

Thanks to the efficiency of this improved machine, the steam engine was quickly deployed to operate rotary machines in factories across several industries, particularly in cotton mills. Because steam power meant industrialists no longer had to rely on wind, water or muscle power, factories could be built anywhere. As a result, industrial production was to rise exponentially.


This video from Muséum Genève demonstrates how Watt's steam engine worked.


It's all in a name

During his life, Watt coined the term
horsepower to describe an engine’s power output. Nearly a century after his death, the internationally-recognised unit of power used to quantify the rate of energy transfer — the watt — was named in his honour.


Bell answers the call

While he may have emigrated to North America — where he first found fame — at the age of 23, Alexander Graham Bell’s groundbreaking invention of the first practical telephone was very much forged in his home country. 

Growing up in mid-19th-century Edinburgh, Bell’s mother’s deafness inspired a lifelong fascination with acoustics and led him to study at the Scottish capital’s prestigious university. As his life and career took him first to London and then to Canada, Bell’s ongoing experiments with sound culminated in his invention of an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”: the telephone.

After Bell was granted a United States patent for his instrument in 1876, a flurry of inventors and engineers would develop the telephone further to make it an indispensable device across all areas of society — revolutionising human communication in the process.


Ushering in the age of antibiotics

Born on a farm in East Ayrshire in 1881, Alexander Fleming was perhaps the unlikeliest of scientific pioneers. 

Years after training as a physician and microbiologist, Fleming made one of the most famous discoveries in medicine. In 1928, upon returning to his lab from a holiday, Fleming noticed a mould had accidentally contaminated one of the staphylococci culture plates he had previously been studying. After further investigation, Fleming realised this mould — Penicillium rubens, or penicillin — caused cell lysis in the staphylococcus sample.

However accidental the discovery may have been, the ever-modest Fleming had irrevocably changed the course of medicine. Penicillin is now the most widely used antibiotic in the world and is estimated to have saved between 80 million and 200 million lives since his discovery.

The following video from TED Ed explains how Fleming stumbled upon his momentous epiphany.


Tuning in to television

The inventor and electrical engineer John Logie Baird was born in Dunbartonshire in 1888, and his achievements certainly matched those of his illustrious predecessors. 

In 1926, Baird demonstrated the world’s first working television system. Two years later, his company achieved the first transatlantic television transmission. By 1944, he’d demonstrated the first electronic colour television.

Baird’s innovation was truly era-defining. A mere four decades after his first 1926 demonstration, over 650 million tuned in to their TVs to watch the first man walk on the moon. Today, around 1.67 billion households have a television.


Standing out from the flock

By the end of the 20th century, Scottish science was beginning to resemble science fiction. In 1996, a collaboration between the Roslin Institute (part of the University of Edinburgh) and the Scottish biotech company PPL Therapeutics conducted one of the most remarkable experiments in the history of the discipline.

Using the process of nuclear transfer, the team successfully cloned a female domestic sheep. The sheep, named Dolly, was the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell and lived up to the age of six (the lung problems that killed her were not thought to be a corollary of the cloning process).

As we enter the 2020s, Dolly’s legacy certainly lives on. The pioneering work of the Roslin Institute represented a major paradigm shift, paving the way for stem cell research and genetic engineering technologies such as CRISPR. 

However, as with any novel scientific breakthrough that enters previously uncharted territory, these developments also pose an ethical dilemma for scientists. As research into gene therapy uncovers new discoveries, the true legacy of Dolly will become more apparent.


In this video, Al Jazeera examines how Dolly's controversial legacy continues to affect science.

The present: a dynamic, growing sector

Just as early pioneers like Hutton, Black, and Watt solidified Scotland’s reputation for ingenuity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, contemporary Scotland’s STEM industry is once again a global centre of world-class research.

With 770 life-science organisations employing 41,000 people, the country’s STEM sector represents one of the largest science clusters in Europe. While the majority of these businesses are located in the Central Belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, successful enterprises can be found all over the country — including biometrics companies in the Highlands and biotech firms in Aberdeen.

Between 2009 and 2015 alone, Scotland created more than 170 life-science startups with a success rate of 85%. Outside of the “Golden Triangle” (East of England, South East England and London), Scotland has generated more startups than any other UK region. Between 2010 and 2017, Scottish life-science enterprises generated £6.5bn turnover and £2.3bn GVA.

With these figures pointing to continued growth, it’s no surprise to see increasing investment in the sector in recent years. 

Earlier this year, Epidarex Capital — a “leading transatlantic venture capital firm that invests in early-stage, high growth life science opportunities in under-ventured markets” — launched a £102 million venture fund in Edinburgh to invest in emerging life-science businesses. With the UK government contributing £50 million to the fund, it’s clear that there’s a concerted private- and public-sector effort to breathe life into Scottish life science.


The future: new horizons

“Scotland has a long tradition of expertise, innovation and achievement in STEM and it’s an integral part of our future economic and social development.”

Education Scotland

In 2017, the Scottish Government published the STEM Education and Training Strategy for ScotlandThis document sets out a future vision of Scotland as a STEM nation — one with a highly-educated and skilled population equipped with the right skills, knowledge, and capability needed to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing global economy.

According to Shirley-Anne Somerville, the then Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, “we aspire to be the inventor and manufacturer of the innovations that will shape the future.” If current trends within the Scottish STEM sector are anything to go by, these aspirations are not overly ambitious.

Indeed, Scottish Development International estimates that Scotland’s life sciences sector is growing at a rate of 9.6% CAGR and is on track to reach a turnover of $8bn by 2025.


The UK is a world leader in the life sciences, and Scotland — the place that inspired several branches of science — is once again generating a buzz in the world of STEM. For more on Scotland's dynamic STEM sector, stay tuned to the SRG blog.

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