Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 25, 2024



The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11958, in the name of Richard Lochhead, on Scotland as a technology nation. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.


The Minister for Small Business, Innovation, Tourism and Trade (Richard Lochhead)

Today, as we celebrate the contribution of Rabbie Burns to the world, in this debate we can celebrate and discuss Scotland’s contribution to the world as a technology nation.

The world’s economy faces two extraordinary and arguably unprecedented and unavoidable forces. First, there is the critical need to transition from an economic model that is based on fossil fuels to one that is based on sustainable resources. Secondly, there is the need to rethink the way in which we live and work in order to harness the potential of artificial intelligence and other forms of new technology. Those forces are transforming our world and demanding collective leadership to steer a course through uncharted waters, and it will be an exciting voyage of discovery.

Scotland can face that journey with optimism. We are equipped with an abundance of natural resources, and universities and industry can provide opportunities to lead and break new ground, improve productivity, create new businesses and open new markets at home and around the world.

Scotland absolutely has the potential to be a leading nation in technology, science and world-class innovation. We start from a position of strength, with our tech sector employing more than 80,000 people and contributing around £6 billion to our economy—that figure has increased by an astounding 107.5 per cent since 2012.

With more than 700 life science organisations employing more than 42,500 people, Scotland is one of the largest life sciences clusters in Europe. Life sciences are worth £3 billion to the Scottish economy. The sector has achieved 8 per cent growth each year since 2010, and life sciences exports stood at £3 billion in 2019. Scotland is also home to 227 financial technology companies. The fintech cluster has seen a 24 per cent increase in jobs over the past two years and is breaking new ground in areas such as green finance and financial regulation.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

It is interesting to note that the minister highlights both pure technology and its applications. Do we need greater clarity on the fact that tech is not just pure tech but a dynamic and a driver? Consider, for example, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and robotics in the North Sea. That clarity also needs to be translated into policy.

Richard Lochhead

There is an element of truth in the member’s point, and it is an important point in the debate, but I hope that, as my remarks progress, I can give the member some confidence that we are doing that at the moment.

We have a thriving space industry, with more than 130 companies in a sector that employs 18 per cent of the United Kingdom workforce and has seen recent revenue growth of 30 per cent. Orbex, based in Forres in my constituency, has just been identified in the top 10 space start-ups to watch globally.

This year, we hope to see the UK’s first vertical launch take-off from Scotland, and that will command headlines throughout and beyond Europe. With regard to Daniel Johnson’s point, we also have one of the largest critical technologies clusters in the UK, with a turnover that is estimated at more than £2.8 billion. Those underpinning and often invisible technologies are vital to our future. In particular, they have huge export potential. Photonics—the science and technology of light, including lasers, optical systems and fibre optics—generates £1.3 billion in revenues, with more than 96 per cent coming from exports.

The growth that has been achieved warrants celebration. That is tremendous growth in tech against a backdrop of the challenges of Brexit, Covid, inflation and energy costs, which are faced by all industries, including technology, and the wider business community. The growth is testament to the strength and resilience of Scotland’s high-tech industries.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Scotland has always been very good at innovation and early-stage advanced technology. However, we have not been so good at taking that to the next level. What are we doing to make sure that overseas agencies do not come in, buy up our technology and take it away?

Richard Lochhead

The member raises an issue that is very topical and pertinent to the debate. Of course, at the moment, there is a huge amount of activity in Scotland, with lots of signs of progress in relation to that challenge. I will refer again to some of the progress that is now evident, because we want sticky jobs that stay in Scotland, which is particularly the case with tech jobs. In this country, we want not only to invent things but get the jobs and economic benefits from those inventions. I honestly think that there are signs of that now changing in this country.

Our national strategy for economic transformation and the recent innovation strategy set out a very clear model to build on that, by forging partnerships between Government, academia and industry to build an entrepreneurial, innovative and successful technology nation. Together, we have invested in an infrastructure that nurtures talent and provides opportunities to apply the technologies of tomorrow to the challenges of today. The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland, the medicines manufacturing innovation centre, the national robotarium and the Aberdeen BioHub are just a small sample of the new infrastructure that has opened, and those four examples have opened just in the past two years. The Scottish public contribution totalled more than £100 million for those projects. Since 2013, we have invested more than £155 million in innovation centres, and a further investment of up to £8 million per year was announced last week.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I will take a final intervention.

Ivan McKee

I think that the minister knows what I am going to say. It is great to highlight that infrastructure that is in place, but how does that align with the Government’s decision to shut three of the seven innovation centres last week?

Richard Lochhead

As the member knows, the Scottish Funding Council carried out a review—at arm’s length from Government—of long-term funding for innovation centres. A lot of work is going on with the innovation centres that did not secure long-term funding from the SFC on how the new model can work for them. The SFC is leading that exercise and I am confident that, in some shape or form, the great work that is carried out by some of those innovation centres will continue.

We have committed £60 million so far to the implementation of the “Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review” recommendations, including £42 million in our national and unique Techscaler network to support the next generation of Scottish start-ups over the next five years. We are also developing entrepreneurial campuses, with academics, researchers and students bringing new business ideas to life. This is the technology nation in action—our science excellence fuels our innovation and technology, with our world-class universities underpinning our tech revolution.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I am happy to do so if I can get the time back.

Given the point that the minister just made about universities, is he concerned by the £28 million cut that they are facing this year?

Richard Lochhead

The universities have received more than £1 billion from the Government per year for the past number of years. I am concerned about the very difficult budget that the Scottish Government has to implement following the settlement from the UK Government. Members of all parties across the chamber should also be concerned about the cut in the budget that the Scottish Government has received from the UK Government.

Our universities are playing a tremendous role at the moment, and they will continue to do so. Spin-outs from Scottish universities continue to attract significant investment, with £235 million making it a record year for spin-out value—up 53 per cent on 2021.

The University of Dundee was named the world’s most influential pharmaceuticals research institution, above the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge. TauRx, an Aberdeen spin-out that is seeking to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars since its founding in 2002. It promises great things.

The Research Excellence Framework 2021 shows that there is world-leading research in every Scottish university. Edinburgh Napier University is one of three in Scotland and one of seven in the UK to achieve the highest rating for research in computer science.

Our global leadership can be seen reflected back at us from space. Scottish scientists designed crucial technology within the world’s most powerful space telescope—the James Webb telescope, which allows us to look back in time over tens of millions of years—and developed key components for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory project, the first in the world to detect gravitational waves. Those are all part of Scotland’s tech for good approach, as those advancements can be seen to benefit our health and other needs of society.

Two university spin-outs, MR CoilTech and Wideblue, are behind new technology that is being used in the next generation of ultra-high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scanners and other medical devices.

Will the minister take a quick intervention?

There is time, minister.

I will take the intervention.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I declare an interest in relation to farming.

The minister has not mentioned some of the technology around agriculture. Gene editing is a real opportunity for Scotland. Given that he is a former rural affairs minister, what concerns does the minister have about Scotland’s block on the opportunities of that new technology?

Richard Lochhead

Agritech has a big role to play, and I am keen to learn more about it as part of our innovation strategy as we take it forward. At the same as we keep an open mind to new technologies, it is absolutely vital that we protect Scotland’s incredible image in relation to provenance and good, clean food and drink in terms of the raw ingredients that are used in our fantastic food and drink industry. We must balance those approaches going forward, and I think that we have the right balance at the moment.

A new international standard has been created for wi-fi light communications. Edinburgh-based pureLiFi is at the forefront of this emerging technology. The University of Edinburgh also recently opened the Quantum Software Lab and will host the UK’s first next-generation supercomputer, which is 50 times faster than any of the country’s existing machines. Last year, the famous XPRIZE Foundation chose the University of Glasgow as its new European hub.

We should not forget the brilliant games technology, with its own track record of success, which is largely born in the city of Dundee. That track record looks set to continue, with Edinburgh-based Build A Rocket Boy successfully securing £87 million in capital just last week. That is another sign of the fantastic momentum in Scotland’s technology sectors.

We need to keep moving up the international league tables of technology nations, and we must continue to create the conditions for success, such as by rolling out fibre infrastructure, which truly is the backbone of a technology nation. That backbone enables every business in Scotland, no matter where they are located, to play their part in a digital economy.

Our record investment in the reaching 100 per cent—R100—programme is extending gigabit-capable fibre networks the length and breadth of Scotland. Over the past 10 years, we have invested more than £1 billion in delivering almost 1 million broadband connections.

Another engine of growth is 5G, and its adoption has the potential to increase Scotland’s gross domestic product by up to £17 billion, add up to 160,000 jobs and help to create more than 3,000 new businesses by 2035. That is why we have invested £14 million in establishing the Scotland 5G Centre and the network of regional hubs.

Our enterprise agencies are playing their part. I will shortly address one of the points about scaling up.

Scotland continues to be the most attractive location outside of London for inward investment, with more than 8,500 jobs being created last year. Our projects were up by 3.3 per cent in 2022, compared with a 6.4 per cent fall in the UK. In inward investment, we are outperforming the UK and are the best-performing area outside of London.

Our agencies work together to help businesses to access the capital that they need to grow. That issue was raised earlier. M Squared Lasers, a quantum and photonics company in Glasgow, received £12.5 million of investment from the Scottish National Investment Bank in November 2020, which was the bank’s first investment. The bank has now committed more than £0.5 billion of investment to 31 businesses and projects, bringing in more than £800 million of investment from third parties. In fact, research last year showed that equity investment in Scottish businesses reached a record £953 million—an increase of 26 per cent from 2021. A strong and vibrant technology sector can do much to help us to manage the challenges that we face now and into the future. We want the companies that are based here to scale up, and it is great to see those new statistics.

Those sectors are export driven and generate high-value employment, high wages and more tax revenues. Many tech sectors pay well above the national average. The photonics sector, for example, has an average employee gross value added of £89,000. It is important for us all in the chamber to remember the ultimate point of all of this. Technology can improve our quality of life, save our planet and support humankind. It can keep us secure by protecting vital systems and services from attack. We are producing health tech, agritech, climate tech, clean tech, education tech and so much else. Many of the emerging new technologies to help the public sector and the public good are emerging through our successful CivTech programme.

To ensure that Scotland’s high-tech industries are equipped to meet future challenges, the Scottish Government will continue to invest in digital and enabling infrastructure. We will work with businesses to develop a green industrial strategy, and we will convene industries to come together to understand how we can better support and drive collaboration between the high-tech sectors. We want to explore the appointments of ambassadors, for example, for each of the high-tech sectors, and we want to promote Scotland’s position as a leading science and technology nation.

It is 25 years since the opening of this Parliament. We have witnessed enormous changes in that time and, 25 years from now, the world will not be the same as it is today. However, Scotland is in a position of strength. Scotland can be and, if we play to our advantages, will be a hub of world-class science and technology. I urge Parliament to support the motion.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the fundamental role of technology, science and innovation in shaping the modern world; notes the global trends that will impact upon Scotland’s future economy and society; celebrates the successes of Scotland’s high-tech industries and the benefits that they bring in generating economic prosperity, enabling the transition to a green economy, offering solutions to the challenges of the 21st century, providing thousands of high-skilled jobs and generating inward investment and export opportunities, and recognises the role of the Scottish Government in supporting Scotland to become a hub of world-class technology, building on the strengths of these industries to play a central role in the delivery of an economy that is fair, green and growing, and benefits all of Scotland’s communities and people.

As I indicated to the minister, there is some time in hand this afternoon. At this stage, we have plenty of time for interventions.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to begin the Scottish Conservatives’ contribution to this important debate. Any day when I get to quote the science fiction author Arthur C Clarke is a good day. Clarke wrote three laws about the future, the most famous of which was:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

He wrote that in 1968, at a time when many people believed that, by now, we would have colonised space, cured hunger and ended disease. Well, we could not accuse them of being unambitious. However, if the author were here today, would he see the technology that we possess now as magical? Would he recognise that same technological ambition in us today?

Since Arthur C Clarke’s time, we have transformed the way in which we live and work. The warehouse-sized computers that helped to put man on the moon can now be vastly outperformed by the smartphones in our pockets or even the smartwatches on our wrists. In every sphere of life, from education and health to engineering and business, new technologies have transformed how we live and work.

As the Government’s motion alludes to, Scotland has achieved a great deal as a technological nation—our technologies have been groundbreaking and transformative. However, as the Scottish Conservative amendment seeks to point out, our past achievements are no guarantee of future success. At a time when the pace of change in technology continues to accelerate and whole new fields of research are in development, we should be laying the foundations of future success. Instead, we have a Scottish Government that does not just lack focus on long-term gains; in some cases, it takes decisions that actively harm such gains.

The coming years will see dramatic changes to our economy and society as a whole. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and zero carbon energy all have the potential to radically alter our lives, and the Scottish Government and this Parliament should constantly be considering how that could and should impact policy making.

The Scottish Government has not completely failed to recognise the need for change. The Scottish technology ecosystem review, which was led by Mark Logan—and commissioned by Kate Forbes back when Scottish National Party plans for the future extended beyond the Scottish Green Party manifesto—offered more than 30 recommendations to support more start-ups and scale-ups in the technology sector, which the Scottish Government duly accepted. However, the report examined only part of the picture, at best, and, despite being published in August 2020, it was written at a time when the arrival of AI felt more distant than it does today.

Daniel Johnson

Does Brian Whittle agree that the critical point with technology is that we always need to push ourselves further, that doing so is a constant challenge and that there is a risk that we rest on our laurels? Indeed, if we look at the Logan review, we can see that we have yet to fulfil a number of challenging recommendations. To be successful, we must be realistic about the challenges in front of us.

Brian Whittle

Daniel Johnson is absolutely correct. One of the things that we must do is stop looking at the short term. We must look beyond that, look at the possibilities—I will probably come on to that issue later—and ensure that there is a framework to support those possibilities.

Technology moves quickly, but Governments all too often have a reputation for moving painfully slowly. The belief that it is enough for this or any Government to act in response to changing technology is the surest way to allow other countries to leave Scotland behind. If we are to capitalise on technological revolutions, we must plan for the long term and the big picture, as I was discussing with Daniel Johnson. To use a construction analogy, the first role of Government should be site clearance and preparation, not architecture.

Education lies at the heart of the issue for me, which is why it features prominently in our amendment. I was glad to see education feature in the Labour amendment, which we will support later. Education is what shapes tomorrow’s workforce. It is through education that we can offer everyone an opportunity, and education sets the path of an individual’s life.

Education is also one of the many areas in which the Scottish Government consistently fails to deliver. That has been discussed often in the chamber recently. When Nicola Sturgeon was First Minister, she said that she should be “judged” on her record on education. Although the immediate focus might be on WhatsApp retention policies, the record of her Government and her successor on education is no less disingenuous.

Although Scotland’s return to the programme for international student assessment and other educational rankings is a welcome development, it only serves to demonstrate just how much of a hill we now have to climb. Before any SNP MSPs leap to their feet to insist that our declining performance is not unique and remind us once again that Covid is responsible for every bad outcome, except the situations in which it is the UK Government’s fault, it is important to point out that Scotland’s score in maths has declined by more than 20 points since 2015. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development director of education and skills is on record as saying that

“long-term issues in education systems are also to blame for the drop in performance. It is not just about Covid.”

He cited declining parental engagement, worsening teacher-student relationships, difficulties in recruiting teachers and the negative impact of the use of smartphones for leisure purposes as other key factors to consider. It is also worth noting that some countries improved their PISA scores, so a pandemic decline was not inevitable.

The reality, whether the SNP likes it or not, is that the Scottish Government’s approach to education simply is not working. We should be encouraging Scottish pupils to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in further and higher education, but we are seeing cuts to the Scottish Funding Council and a cap on Scottish student numbers, leaving the next generation of home-grown talent at the back of the queue for places. That assumes that we have pupils leaving school not only with the basic skills that are required to study STEM subjects but with the inspiration to do so. If pupils are not coming out of school having had the chance to learn to code, to visit engineering businesses or to hear from scientific leaders about what the future holds, why would we expect them to want to make a career for themselves in technology?

I feel as though I have barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on the subject. There is a whole separate debate to be had on the potential of new technologies in the national health service and the desperate need to modernise the technology and information technology systems of the health service.

Similarly, we must spend more time talking about the digital infrastructure that will be the backbone of our future economy, from 5G to fibre broadband to grid infrastructure for data centres. I hope that colleagues across the chamber will touch on at least some of those points and agree that, although we have the potential to be a leading technology nation, we can do that only if we start from the position of accepting our current weaknesses and start thinking for the long term.

I was interested to hear the minister talk about our space technology. As I have a little bit of time left, I want to pick up on that. The other day, I watched a programme in which the point was made that, when we human beings are long gone, the only things that will be left will be AI and the 1970s technology that has now left the solar system, which may live for billions of years beyond our short lives. I think that AI has huge potential. Yes, I am a nerd when it comes to that kind of stuff.

In closing, I return to another of Arthur C Clarke’s three laws:

“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

I move amendment S6M-11958.1, to leave out from “, and recognises” to end and insert:

“; notes that the recent Scottish Budget for 2024-25 will prevent Scotland’s technology sector from reaching its full potential by cutting enterprise funding, stymying economic growth, and placing a higher tax burden on Scotland, compared to the rest of the UK; further notes that recent cuts to the Scottish Funding Council and the Scottish National Investment Bank will restrict research and development opportunities in the software, medical and green technology sectors; acknowledges that the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results will impact the technology sector with Scotland continuing to perform poorly in maths and science; believes that the poverty-related attainment gap will prevent future generations from entering the technology sector; calls on the Scottish Government to promote STEM subjects in schools, and to encourage more people to pursue technology as a career through higher education or apprenticeships, and urges the Scottish Government to work more constructively with the technology sector to grow the economy so that Scotland can continue to become a centre of world-leading technology, and provide more well-paid and highly-skilled jobs.”


Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I will pick up where Brian Whittle left off, because the issue at hand is about challenge, what we need to achieve and the gap between what that means and where we are now.

There are many things in the Government’s motion that we can agree with. There are many things that we should be celebrating. Technology is undoubtedly one of our strengths. We have fantastic innovation when it comes to tech start-ups, both here and in Glasgow. We have phenomenal strength in the games industry in Dundee. In addition, fascinating work is being done in Aberdeen on robotics and the use of technology in the supply chain. However, are we a leader in technology? Are we there yet?

If this subject were being debated in Seoul, California or Estonia, I do not think that we would have a motion quite like the one that we have from the Scottish Government. I think that the politicians in those places would be rigorously focused on what they needed to do to keep pace. On issues such as AI, they would be thinking about whether China was going to replace them, where the next challenges were going to come from and whether future global conflicts could potentially result in a global supply chain shortage of silicon chips. Those are the sort of issues that we need to be alive to. We must also recognise how much further we still have to go if we are truly to be a tech nation.

I will set out some of the challenges that we need to address. I am glad that the minister mentioned AI in his opening remarks, but, frankly, a motion on technology that does not—in this day and age—even name check AI is simply deficient. We will support the Government motion, but I urge the Government to back the amendments of Labour and the Conservatives, because it is important that we are clear-eyed about what those challenges are.

Let me start with the Logan review. It was excellent, but it was very clear about the challenges. Yes, the Government has moved forward on some of the recommendations, but not all of them. The Logan review was very clear about the importance of education. Any tech entrepreneur will highlight the importance of computer science teachers in our schools, but the number of such teachers has declined, not increased, since that report was published. What is more, only handfuls of trainee computer science teachers are going through teacher training college.

That is an issue of national importance. It is certainly one of critical importance to the tech sector, but it goes beyond just computer science teachers. It is also about how we are teaching technology. I hear concerns not only from the tech sector but from parents, through my casework, about the fact that the availability of iPads in the classroom is seen as a proxy for technology. Frankly, our children do not need to be taught how to consume technology; they need to be taught how to use and manipulate it.

Brian Whittle

I cannot agree more with what Daniel Johnson said. Does he agree that the issue, rather than being about teaching our kids technology—after all, the jobs of the future are yet to be invented—is about creating an environment in which they can see the impossible?

Daniel Johnson

I completely agree, but it is also important for them to apply technology to their work when they seek to do new things. We do not have enough of that and it is certainly not rigorous or comprehensive enough.

One critical point made in the Logan review is that there is still work to do on the capitalisation of, and investment in, tech. There have been some steps in the right direction, but there is still a big funding gap. We still have to get access to critical venture capital funds in other parts of the world, because that is where the money is.

The issue is not just about the tech sector itself. When I intervened, I touched on the idea that what is important is not just the application of technology but its penetration throughout our economy. I come from a small business environment and am critically aware of how poorly most small and medium-sized enterprises currently use technology. According to the business software company Sage, SMEs could double their output from around £200 billion to more than £400 billion if they were to use technology as effectively as companies in the upper quartile use it. That would be a huge boost. Likewise, the Open University recently reported that 79 per cent of SMEs are held back from applying technology because they simply do not have the finance, time or knowledge to implement it properly. We must focus on the penetration of technology not only in the tech sector itself but across the economy.

It is also critical to recognise that the economy is not only the private sector but is made up of the public and private sectors. We are a million miles away from where we should be in applying technological innovation and processes in our public sector. I thank Richard Lochhead for bringing this debate, but it is somewhat dismaying not to see the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy here to present ideas and not to see any of the other cabinet secretaries who should be interested. We need technological innovation in health, agriculture, education and social security, and I would have thought that at least one of those individuals could have played a really useful role in this debate. [Interruption.]

Gentlemen, please do not speak across the chamber from a secondary position.

Daniel Johnson

I am trying to bring a constructive challenge. There may be a wider point to make, but I am my party’s front-bench spokesperson for the economy and it is a core part of my work to take this forward. My colleague, the front-bench spokesperson for education is also here. That is how the Labour shadow cabinet—[Interruption.]

Minister, please refrain. I remind members that the person who has the floor is the person who gets the shot at speaking. Please continue, Mr Johnson.

Daniel Johnson

There is a challenge for us all; I do not think that is a partisan point. If we are to deliver on the challenges of demography, climate change and all the others that have been highlighted, we must apply technological innovation across our public sector.

My final point is that it is just not acceptable to talk about what needs to be done with technology without talking about digital exclusion. The economy and society depend on digital technology and that dependency will only grow. We can use technology to make improvements. The Blackwood housing association, in my constituency, uses technology to stay in touch with people living in its sheltered accommodation. It would be remiss to bring forward a broad motion about technology without addressing its vital social aspect.

There is much to celebrate and to focus on, but we must first acknowledge and be serious about the challenges or we simply will not meet them.

I move amendment S6M-11958.2, to insert at end:

“; notes the findings and recommendations of the Scottish technology ecosystem review, led by Mark Logan, including the findings that the number of computer studies teachers in Scotland is falling and that Scotland’s education system is not currently set up to support a thriving technology sector, and calls on the Scottish Government to act urgently to reverse this trend, reduce digital exclusion and make computer studies a growing and exciting subject area in Scottish schools.”

We now move to the open debate. I advise members that we still have some time in hand.


Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

It is always a pleasure to take part in Parliament debates about technology.

A few years ago, I spoke in a debate about the Scottish Council for Development and Industry report “Automatic for the People”, which examined the opportunities and challenges that Scotland faced in the fourth industrial revolution that was then almost upon us. That was just a few short years ago, but that revolution has now almost passed us, because of the speed with which technology has moved on and the way in which innovation has changed our environment.

Technology brings challenges, but we should embrace it. Scotland is leading in some areas of technology. The minister mentioned the robotarium at Heriot-Watt University. The cross-party group on science and technology, which I co-convene, visited the robotarium a short time ago. We were able to see some advances in robotics for use in agriculture and health, AI and chatbots, and how robots could be used in the hospitality industry.

In health, robots and AI are being used to examine people’s gait and to predict whether a person is likely to have a condition such as Parkinson’s disease, long before any other tests that are available to us might indicate that there could be a problem. The robotarium also includes sensor technology. I note that Mr McKee mentioned CENSIS, which is one of the internet of things and sensor technology centres for excellence. Minute changes in a person’s gait can, through use of the technology, be detected by machines in a way that a physiotherapist might not be able to, so gait could be corrected.

Through the gaming industry, games are being used to engage people in doing their exercises. All those technologies are coming together; we must be able to embrace them and move forward.

In my constituency, I am lucky to have the campus of New College Lanarkshire, in Motherwell. It has its smart hub, which is a funded hub that is directed specifically towards supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and enabling them to embrace technologies such as cobots—collaborative robots—and AI-enabled manufacturing and production opportunities. The consultancy is free to SMEs across Scotland. I was able to see the very simplest of robotics and pneumatics that could be used in a manufacturing process, but there were also cobots that were working alongside humans. The robots react if they are touched, so that there is no danger to people in their working environment. Some of the robotic arms from the cobots were being used in very innovative ways. I was blown away by what is happening there.

Cobots are, for example, working at height on our renewable energy wind turbines, where they can sand, weld, paint and repair the blades, in situ.

Daniel Johnson

I am delighted that Clare Adamson is talking about cobots. One of the things that strikes me is that they have the potential to turn economies of scale upside down, and to make small businesses competitive with very big businesses. Does she agree that that is a challenge that we might need to get ready for?

Clare Adamson

Absolutely. That is why the debate this afternoon is so important. Cobots are being used in our renewable energy and in welding. That is important and is something that is close to my heart. Cobots working at height means that no one has to abseil up towers so people are less likely to sustain an industrial injury. It is not safe to abseil when weather conditions are inclement; the job cannot then be done by people. Cobots can work at height and they can work for 24 hours.

Cobots can also do precision welding. We know that industrial injury can be sustained from welding fumes, which is very close to the heart of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and its hazards group, which is investigating the matter, at the moment. Anything that makes such roles in our society safer and which takes danger out of work is amazing. We have seen that in the use of drones. The centre of excellence is well worth a visit and it is really excelling.

The centre also does outreach to the schools in my area. It runs robotics clubs in the college’s feeder schools, which is a welcome innovation. It gives young people opportunities such as we have been talking about. Learning does not always have to be about the classroom and Scottish Qualifications Authority assessments. The opportunity to take part in games of skill—robot wars and so on—is important in engaging our young people in technology.

With the cabinet secretary, I was, as the CPG chair, invited to the centre of data science and AI at the University of Glasgow. It is a new centre of excellence that is dedicated to examining how we can use big data and AI, and is imagining how they can be used in health. Cancer imaging in cancer research was demonstrated there. The centre is the state of the art for Scotland. Again, our education is leading, in that we are among the first countries in the world to have such a dedicated centre.

Recently, the cross-party group on science and technology had an evening event with Scotland’s critical technologies supercluster, which is at the University of Glasgow. During it we looked at quantum computing and semiconductors, which will absolutely transform what we are able to do in monitoring health. There are systems working that look at the microwaves and below wi-fi frequencies in our environment to detect changes in a person’s breathing. The opportunities for health and for looking after people with various conditions are simply breathtaking. They include protecting people in their homes from trips and falls. We also saw at the robotarium how we can support people in their homes with robotics.

Incidentally, one of the cobots costs around £25,000, after which the extension arm must be bought and fitted for whatever it will be used for. Such technologies are accessible to a lot of our SMEs. That is transformative.

The Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, which I convene, recently visited Ireland. When we were in Dublin, we met producers. I asked about AI in every meeting until the last. The food producers are using the next level of robots in their manufacturing and said that, if they did not have AI technology they could not be competitive in the European market or do what they do. That is absolutely where we need to be. I am delighted that we are doing that at the moment.

I have a final point, if I still have time on my hands.

You may have another 25 seconds.

Clare Adamson

In 25 seconds, I can say that I met the Scottish AI Alliance at an event the other day for the British Standards Institution. The alliance is working with The Data Lab and has a wonderful course called “Living with AI”, which explains how AI impacts our lives from day to day. I recommend that course; I will try to take it. I hope that other members will consider it as a way into understanding AI in our developing world.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

There is little to disagree with in the motion that the minister has put before the Scottish Parliament this afternoon. Of course technology, science and innovation play a fundamental role in Scotland and Scotland’s economy and will continue to do so. Conservatives, too, celebrate and acknowledge that key role.

However, the motion raises two linked concerns. The first was briefly alluded to by Daniel Johnson. Surely, if debate in the Scottish Parliament is for anything, it is for interrogating a topic. It is absolutely for celebrating successes, but it is also for acknowledging the challenges, horizon scanning for the challenges that are ahead and offering the Government the opportunity to put up those challenges and to listen about issues and possible solutions, just as Daniel Johnson suggested would be done elsewhere.

The motion falls at the first fence. That not only suggests that the Government has a different view from mine on the role of debate, but highlights its inherent stifling tendency to think very much in silos. That is the only plausible explanation for the extraordinary omission of the one sector that can drive not only societal change, but the very changes and outcomes that involve budgets, the economy and technology, as is craved by the motion. In order that viewers at home are aware, I say that the motion will mention education only if either or both the Conservative and Labour amendments are agreed to today—which is why they must be agreed to.

Yesterday’s Scotsman editorial made that point better than I did. It said:

“If Scotland is to prosper, it needs leaders who have an over-riding obsession to improve the fundamental building block upon which everything else depends. Until then, the foundations of our economy and society will continue to crumble into sand, risking a spiral into a devastating, long-term decline.”

Indeed—because it is fundamentally incoherent to talk about the positive impact of business on society and then, in the same breath, to launch a tax-and-axe budget that cuts the economy budget by £97 million, the Scottish National Investment Bank budget by £69 million and the enterprise budget by more than £62 million.

The businesses and enterprises that remain need a supply of talent and skills, in particular, for the purposes of the motion, and—as Brian Whittle said—in STEM subjects. However, last year, there were more than 350 fewer science teachers, 300 fewer maths teachers and 180 fewer computer science teachers than there were in 2008. As Daniel Johnson rightly said, not only do we have fewer teachers coming through, the minister did not even mention that in his remarks. It is also hugely concerning that, at higher grade level, entries by women in science, maths and chemistry are at their lowest levels for five years.

The supply of talent to our technology industry will also come from the further education sector, which is being so hammered by this Government that it prompted the principal of the outstanding North East Scotland College to write to MSPs earlier this week. Neil Cowie has told us that, in the context of the SFC having reported that 68 per cent of colleges are facing a budget deficit, with four facing significant cash-flow issues, and in which the Auditor General is warning about financial sustainability, colleges face a £32.7 million reduction in revenue funding. He told that last year, years of damaging funding settlements had led to reduced student places across campuses, and that it is likely that there will be a further reduction this year. He also said that that will limit the flow of skilled and qualified entrants to the region’s workforce, which is particularly concerning for businesses in key sectors, including energy transition, hospitality, travel and tourism, technology and life sciences.

Richard Lochhead

Liam Kerr raises a number of important issues that deserve consideration. However, in the past two minutes, he has argued for an increase in the budget in four, five or six different areas of Government. Can he explain how the Government is supposed to increase or protect budgets for all those areas when the UK has cut the Scottish budget? How are we supposed to do that, and what representation has he made to his Conservative colleagues to change that situation?

Liam Kerr

Of course, the minister completely failed to acknowledge—as he failed to acknowledge everything that I have brought up so far—that he is sitting on the biggest block grant in devolution history. Minister—cut the waste and grow the economy, then you will have the money to do what we need to do.

The minister did not even mention the challenges for universities, which is a sector that the SFC has forecast—we should remember—to be running a deficit of £3.3 million in two years, with net liquidity days forecast to fall to 124 in the coming financial year. In that context, we have a Scottish budget that proposes cuts of almost 6 per cent to resource budgets and a £28.5 million cut to teaching grants, which will lead to at least 1,200 fewer university places being available to first-year Scottish students to study in Scotland for the very industries that the minister cited.

Will Liam Kerr give way?

If it is very brief.

If it is £8,000 per place, does £28 million divided by £8,000 not mean that the potential implication is closer to 3,500 fewer students? Is that not the basic arithmetic?

Liam Kerr

I think that it is. That point was made by the member’s colleague, Michael Marra, just last week, when he said that the figure—which the finance secretary is saying will happen—could be much more than 1,200 places. Daniel Johnson has made a very important point.

Sadly, I do not have the time to interrogate the apprenticeship and future workforce development issues, so I will simply leave members with this thought. The education landscape that will generate the businesses, talent and skills of the future lies battered and bruised after 17 years of SNP Government. The utter and abject failure of the minister to even mention education in his motion tells a story of complacency on an industrial scale—coupled, I dare say, with a fundamental lack of ability.

Once again, it has been left to the Opposition to ensure that the debate not only—rightly—lauds our industries, but also recognises and starts to address the challenges. That is why Parliament must vote for the Conservative and Labour amendments at decision time.


Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Scotland has a deep and illustrious history of innovation and making technological progress. Given Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, John Logie Baird’s pioneering of television, James Watt’s transformative improvements to the steam engine and Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, the modern world as we know it can be said to have been created on the back of Scottish innovation. However, the jobs of yesterday cannot guarantee jobs tomorrow. Although we can look to the past for inspiration, if Scotland is to compete globally and meet the challenges of an ever-changing and interdependent world, we must focus on the future.

This country is awash with high-tech industries. Life sciences, space, fintech, agritech, games, robotics, AI and quantum photonics are all sectors in which Scotland boasts companies that are at the cutting edge of development. As the member who led this Parliament’s first-ever debate on AI nearly six years ago, I find it incredible to see the transformational effect that ChatGPT and other AI models are having, including on our economy. The Data Lab, Scotland’s innovation centre for data and AI, recently published an impact report showing that it generated nearly £200 million in revenue in the past decade, with more than 1,350 jobs having been created and 80,000 people having registered for online courses that were being created or funded.

In North Ayrshire we have global leaders in life sciences manufacturing, which last year generated £251 million of gross value added. Scotland’s largest life science enterprise area is in Irvine, in which investment is being targeted on the i3 enterprise area as part of the Ayrshire growth deal. Such funding, including £11 million from the Scottish Government, will also create a digital processing manufacturing centre at i3, providing a centre of excellence for digital automation and flexible advanced manufacturing space that will serve digital process industries.

In Dalry, DSM Nutritional Products, a company that is globally active in health, nutrition and bioscience, is enacting plans for large-scale production of a methane-reducing feed additive for cattle and sheep, which should reduce emissions in beef cattle by as much as 45 per cent.

Mangata Networks chose Prestwick international aerospace park for its innovative space engineering, manufacturing and operations hub, which is set to create 575 highly skilled jobs, and where more than 24 medium-class satellites will be produced and tested every three months. That will help to position Scotland as a leading centre for space and manufacturing innovation, while supporting the aims of the Scottish Government’s space strategy and bringing a huge boost to Ayrshire’s economy.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology giant GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline, has a major manufacturing facility in Irvine, which each year produces 2,500 tonnes of active ingredients for two of the company’s leading antibiotics, which is enough to supply 700 million people for a week. GSK explains why it and similar companies choose Scotland as a manufacturing base. It is

“the availability of a skilled workforce, an established supply chain backed by good infrastructure, government support and a strong academic culture that generates the company’s future talent pool that keeps them here.”

GSK also points to Scotland’s size, which allows it to

“work closely with the government, its agencies, the academic institutes and industry on partnership projects.”

High levels of education and activity on the part of economic development agencies are recurring key factors in companies’ reasons for coming to Scotland. It is vital that they come here. Companies in high-tech industries such as life sciences create the growth that we need to establish skilled jobs and drive productivity across the economy. However, as the Scottish Government’s national strategy for economic transformation notes,

“Scotland ... lags most OECD countries in indicators of entrepreneurial dynamism”.

Underlining that point, at May’s meeting of the Parliament’s cross-party group on life sciences, members were treated to a presentation by the regius professor of life sciences at the University of Dundee, Sir Michael Ferguson. At this point, I declare an interest as convener of the CPG on life sciences, which brings together industry, academics and MSPs to recognise achievement, encourage close collaboration and identify where policy makers can play an active role in making Scotland a place where people and businesses want to come to learn, feel encouraged to innovate and are supported to stay and grow.

I thank the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry for all its work in supporting the CPG. Professor Ferguson’s presentation focused on the practical challenges for growing life sciences start-ups. Despite Scotland’s having only 8 per cent of the UK population, it won 14 per cent of the UK’s life and medical sciences research grants. However, only about 6 per cent of commercialisation investment went to Scotland.

Dundee is one of Scotland’s centres of biomedical research, and it hosts a wealth of expertise in life sciences. Several successful high-growth companies created in Dundee moved their centres of operation out of the city and out of Scotland. Professor Ferguson suggested the creation of a national innovation-to-investable-assets fund to help to keep Scottish-born companies in Scotland. I urge the minister to look seriously at creating such a fund. I hope that he will touch on that in his summing up.

Daniel Johnson

One of the points that was made to me directly by Mark Logan was that he would like the scaler principle, which has been used for technology, to be applied to other industries. Is that the sort of idea that Kenny Gibson thinks could be applied to other sectors such as life sciences?

Kenneth Gibson

Yes. As the member may recall, I have raised the issue of tech skills a number of times in response to various budget statements and in debates, because I feel that it is something that we need to expand. That is a great idea, and I congratulate the Government for working on it, but the money that has been allocated to that is not enough, frankly. Given the potential returns, if we are looking to generate greater taxation in order to invest in the public services for which we need more funding, I would urge the Scottish Government to invest more. I know that I am not the only one in the SNP group who believes that, and I am certainly not the only one on the Finance and Public Administration Committee who believes it, as people will see when we publish our report in the next few days.

On university spin-outs, Scotland has performed well when turning research into companies. Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities all appear in the UK top 10 for the total number of spin-outs created since 2011. As we heard earlier, Dundee is a global leader in entrepreneurial impact. Of the 211 equity deals involving spin-outs across the UK during 2021, 21 per cent came from Scottish institutions—the highest proportion of any region or nation in the UK. Scottish institutions have produced some of the UK’s most significant spin-outs, such as the AI drug discovery company Exscientia and the industrial biotechnology spin-out ENOUGH.

However, Scotland produces 50 per cent fewer spin-outs than the rest of the UK relative to the percentage of research funding, which has consequent impacts on the amount of investment raised by Scottish businesses. The national strategy for economic transformation recognises that, and the strategy document notes:

“Perhaps more than any other domain of the economy, it is in the creation of new companies, and the scaling up of successful companies, where data shows the greatest gap between current performance and Scotland’s potential.”

The Scottish Government has taken steps to address that. In 2022, it appointed Mark Logan as Scotland’s first-ever chief entrepreneur, tasked with ensuring that entrepreneurship is embedded in the economy and strengthening partnerships with industry and investors. Clearly, however, we need to do much more. That role includes building a network of support for start-ups and scale-ups in Scotland, although we have to consider the cost of the huge investment that we will need to digitalise the public sector.

The 10-year national innovation strategy that was published last year sets out a vision to make Scotland the most innovative nation of its size, using innovation as a tool to make Scotland a fairer, more equal, wealthier and greener country. The path to a more prosperous Scotland lies in fostering entrepreneurialism and innovation. We can then fuel economic growth, create new opportunities and build a more dynamic and innovative society. Our world-class universities, skilled workforce and infrastructure give us strong foundations to truly make Scotland a technology nation.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow Kenneth Gibson and his opening history of the technology, development and discovery that rested here in Scotland. That allows me to make immediate mention of Leuchie house, the national respite centre. We have already heard about the robotarium. Through its guests, Leuchie has been working with the robotarium to develop robots that can advance diagnosis and prognosis for urinary tract infections.

Looking at the meaning of technology, it is about that ability to take scientific knowledge and apply it to practical purposes, especially in industry. That lies at the heart of the reason for debating the motion today. Without technology based on scientific development by our world-leading universities, which we have already heard about, we will not see the development and broadening of industry, or SMEs developing into highly technical world leaders, which is what Scotland needs.

There is one example to which I wish to refer in this short speech: Sunamp, a company based in Tranent under chief executive Andrew Bissell and his truly superb staff. They have developed a thermal battery—in essence, a battery or device using phase-change materials that stores and discharges heat. It can be plugged in inside a house to get heat, or it can be used to warm up a swimming pool. The battery can be recharged from renewable energy. The company is so successful that it had the great privilege of winning the first King’s award for enterprise last year. Only in November last year, Sunamp also won the VIBES Scottish environment business award.

I mention that company because it is a world-leading one that is based in Scotland, and it has been visited by ministers and cabinet secretaries. Its brilliant work has been hailed. The local high school in the area—Preston Lodge high school, which is just down the road in Prestonpans—took part in the fuel change project, for which students came here. In Preston Lodge high school’s case, 30 secondary 5 and secondary 6 students had the opportunity to spend the year trying to come up with solutions to the climate change challenge. That was supported by staff in the school and the senior management team, along with universities. Those students rose to the challenge superbly well, as we would expect because, to go back to Brian Whittle’s comment about Arthur C Clarke, our young people see the impossible, and they bravely walk into it and try to achieve a solution.

I mentioned Preston Lodge high school not because I am incredibly proud of it, but because the fuel change project carried with it a Scottish credit and qualifications framework value qualification at level 6. Those are the skills that our young people need so that they can go forward and help in the potential technology desert that could exist, given the real challenge in education, as we have heard from many contributors. In our primary schools, where are the Lego classes that we see elsewhere around the world, in which young people can just play at using technology? In doing so, they develop innate skills so that, when they are faced with maths algorithms, they mean something to them and it is not just a paper exercise. How can they do that when the specialists are unavailable to our schools in Scotland?

We have heard about the drop in the availability of STEM teachers, no more so than in computer science, which is the very foundation of what we need. As we heard earlier, it is not just about our young people using technology; it is about our young people understanding technology, and technology working for the benefit of our young people. They have those skills. The students who were involved in the fuel change project proved that. However, that is just a tiny example of the many young people who are available.

I will pick up again on Brian Whittle’s speech, because it is important. We have had two of the three rules that he mentioned, so let us have the third: when an elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right, but when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong. Before I come on to my next point, I venture to point out that that was written in 1962.

Women and girls play a massively important part not just in STEM for the future but in STEM and scientific discovery today. When we consider the motion and the work that is being done, we must remember that more than an equal contribution can be made by females in that field, and they need to do that. I go back to what technology is about. It is about scientific theory and understanding making a practical solution. In some ways, the contribution of women and girls can be far greater and certainly more far reaching than their male colleagues’ contributions.

I welcome the motion and the opportunity to celebrate brilliant technology in and around the south of Scotland, but I highlight the fundamental foundation of where we are going with education. How are we dealing with our youngest people as they come into an education system and how they understand? The curriculum for excellence requires that children, when they are first at school, should look up at the sky in wonderment. In order to do that, they need adults around them who can support them, excite them, answer their questions and drive them forward to make the discoveries themselves. The Scottish Government must facilitate such adults being around our young people.


Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. I thank the Government for bringing forward a debate on a subject that is hugely important to the future of Scotland’s economy.

As the minister said, there are a number of global trends that we need to be ahead of the curve on, where we can, such as technology and decarbonisation. I would add to that list the demographic shift, which will drive so much in terms of technology requirements.

The minister was right to identify—and many other members highlighted—Scotland’s significant successes in many areas, including the fact that we lead the UK in inward investment. The opportunities that exist, and our leading position, in sectors such as energy, food and drink and tech—in particular fintech—as well as in financial services, advanced manufacturing, space and life sciences have rightly been mentioned, and there are other such sectors.

However, I will focus my contribution on some of the challenges, and the things that we need to ensure that we have in place to enable us to take advantage of those opportunities and build on that success.

First, it is important that we understand the conditions for success. We should not take it for granted that those great companies are out there and great things are happening in our universities, and we should not simply bask in that success. We need to understand, at a deep level, what is driving it and what the pillars are, and, consequently, what the risks are and what we need to strengthen.

It is important to understand what our strengths are. Our universities play a pivotal role in taking forward research. The challenge, as always, is how we build on that and commercialise it at scale.

Brian Whittle

I agree with Ivan McKee that our universities are great incubators for some excellent innovation. Does he agree with me that the challenge is for us to hold on to that innovation, in a country where 95 per cent of our businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises, rather than having the initial tech bought out by the Chinese or Americans and shipped abroad?

Ivan McKee

The member is absolutely right—I heard that part of his speech. It is, to be frank, a problem that most countries in the world suffer from. I will talk about some things that may help to address it to some extent.

We need to understand our other strengths. Our skills base, while having shortcomings, is always cited as a reason that inward investors come to Scotland. The same goes for our natural resources, in particular in the energy and food and drink sectors.

We need to be clear about what we are good at, and we should not fall into the trap or make the mistake of trying to be good at everything, despite the plethora of opportunities that we have in front of us. In what we are good at, however, we need to be among the best in the world, and not in the second division.

We also need to have a clear strategy to deliver. We have the innovation strategy, which I am delighted that the minister has taken forward. I ask him, in his summing up, to give us an indication, now that we are around six months in, of where we are on rolling out the actions from that strategy. I am thinking in particular of cluster building and cluster accreditation. We should be ensuring that—as I said—we understand, at a deep level, what we are good at, and we should focus on and support those technologies and the vertical industry sectors that sit above them.

I take the opportunity to raise—as I did in an earlier intervention—a concern about the innovation centre decision. The money is one thing, although those innovation centres are generating, over time, tens of millions of pounds in private sector contributions as well, and several of them will find a route through.

More concerning, to my mind, is the lack of joined-up decision making, of which that particular decision is a symptom. To be frank, it is not good enough for Government to say that it gave the problem to the Scottish Funding Council and the SFC gave it to some other folks, who came back with some independent assessment.

Government needs to own that decision—it needs to be on top of it. There needs to be a joined-up approach: the innovation strategy identifies those innovation centres as a core part, but, on the other hand, we seek to cut their legs away through some process that has happened somewhere else. Government is shifting the buck, and—to be frank—that is not good enough.

Daniel Johnson

On that point, I note that the innovation report laid out quite a complicated landscape for innovation. One of the problems is that we have at least two places that own innovation. Does the member think that innovation should be owned by a single agency in Scotland?

Ivan McKee

That is an excellent point. Fundamentally, we have the universities and the education system, which drives the research, and the economic development agencies and the business sector, which take that research and makes it work.

The principle that I always worked to in business was that it is the customer who has to own it, because they need to pull it through. They need to be in the lead, because they suffer the consequences if it does not work. On that basis, I would be all in favour of the enterprise agencies owning that problem. Part of the issue is that we have given the problem to an agency that, to be frank, while it understands research, does not understand innovation, commercialisation or economic development. I think that we are suffering as a consequence of that.

The second area to highlight is investment, and capital investment in particular: whom we approach for money; how we sell that opportunity to them; what businesses and sectors we want the money to come into; and how we put a coherent case together.

The global capital investment plan gives us many of the answers to that. It is hugely important that we continue to drive that and bring in investment for businesses, because that will help to address some of the issues that Brian Whittle raised about businesses being bought out by larger international companies. If we have the capacity to have investment flowing into businesses in Scotland, they can grow and export on the back of that, rather than feeling the need to be bought by other companies.

My third point is about skills alignment. We understand that there are skills challenges, but having a tight connection between what businesses require for particular skills over the coming years and what the college and university sector is lined up to provide is important, which is an issue that I have addressed with education ministers. I sometimes worry that those two things are pulling in separate directions, and we have not joined them up as effectively as we could.

The minister makes great points about infrastructure and digital connectivity, which are absolutely central. I welcome the work that is happening there. The connection speeds could always be faster, but I know that a lot of good stuff is happening on broadband and mobile connectivity across the country.


The final point is about something that Daniel Johnson and Brian Whittle raised. We need to use the public sector to adopt and procure technology, which will accelerate its development. Brian Whittle mentioned the NHS, which is a great example of where we could do more to support our life sciences sector. We are not as joined up as we could be. We need to leverage the significant £14 billion or £15 billion to support Scottish indigenous growth businesses.

Could you conclude, Mr McKee.

Ivan McKee

Absolutely, Presiding Officer.

There is a huge opportunity and there are a lot of things that we can do to transform Scotland’s position globally, but we need to understand those drivers and we need to be joined up on delivery.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

As we navigate our way toward a fairer and greener Scotland, we know that technology will be an important tool for us to tackle the grand challenges that we face. We must not only embrace technological innovation and advancement, but also ensure that we are aligned—I believe closely—with Europe’s forward-thinking approach to sustainable innovation, because technology in and of itself is not always a good thing. We must make sure, as I discussed in a debate on the green economy yesterday, that our innovations, processes and techniques support our broader vision for a liveable future.

We know that many in Scotland have worked hard to earn our country’s reputation as a hub of technological development. Excellent innovation infrastructure, spotting and exploiting opportunities and a highly skilled workforce have all contributed to that. Digital businesses in Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, have a combined turnover of £1.2 billion, employing more than 70,000 people. Tech is in the DNA of Dundee, which is one of the cities that I am honoured to represent. Britain’s “coolest little city” is, according to the Tech Nation Group, one of the most likely cities to become a leading UK tech hub, with its vibrant mobile application, software and games development scene.

However, Brexit uncertainty, lack of adequate or appropriately targeted UK Government capital investment, skills development and talent retention remain challenges for the sector across Scotland to overcome if it is to continue to thrive well into the future. We will need tech, including AI, to meet the challenges that we face. As we embrace the transformative opportunities that tech provides, we must ensure that our technological progress aligns with principles that protect the planet, promote social sustainability and foster a circular economy. The Scottish Greens’ vision for Scotland as a technology nation extends beyond economic considerations: it encompasses the principles of green industrialism and the imperative to create a technology landscape that protects people and planet.

In emphasising a repair economy, we echo the sentiments of those who want to end the cycle of disregarding perfectly good devices. We envision a Scotland in which repair, reuse and recycling are not only encouraged but become integral to our tech culture. The goal is to move away from a throwaway culture and built-in obsolescence, which means that it is cheaper to buy new devices than to repair the ones that we already love. In doing so, we will not only protect our environment but create thousands of jobs in a burgeoning repair economy. The principles that are articulated by the European Commission resonate strongly with our vision for a sustainable tech future in Scotland. Our tech innovations must provide solutions for, rather than a barrier to, the sustainable green economy. Given some of the growth predictions in different tech sectors, our commitment to green industrialism demands that we take proactive measures to ensure that the growing environmental footprint will not have a negative impact.

To harness technology for good and protect the planet, we should work toward the following goals. Consumers should have the right to repair their own devices or to choose paid repair services. That will empower us to extend the lifespan of devices, which will promote sustainability and reduce e-waste.

People should be empowered to make informed and sustainable retail choices—that goal is crucial. Labels should indicate the environmental impacts of technology, as that will empower everyone to consider the ecological footprint of their gadgets. We should set strong minimum sustainability requirements—as far as devolved powers allow—that include considerations for product reparability and longevity, across all products on the market. That would ensure that manufacturers prioritise eco-friendly design and durability. Efficiency standards, which are currently industry led across the UK, set a good precedent for that.

We should promote a repair economy, supported by strategic investments in creating a secondary market for reusing raw materials. The repair economy not only contributes to environmental conservation and material optimisation but generates new job opportunities in the repair and recycling sectors.

Developing and sustaining a skills-based labour market and encouraging skills transferability in the context of the circular transition align with the goal of creating a workforce that is capable of supporting sustainable practices. Such an initiative promotes adaptability and expertise in environmentally friendly technologies.

Aiming for zero harmful substances in our technology is a pivotal commitment that is tied to the goals of the circular economy. Eliminating or minimising harmful materials in the production and disposal of technology is essential for creating a less polluting and more sustainable industry.

The UK Government obviously has a role to play in all this. We must enhance transparency and commercial reporting on the environmental impact of technology, including greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption and life-cycle impacts, which should be published in an open database. Such information empowers consumers and policy makers to make informed choices.

Integrating environmental impacts within decision-making criteria in the development of public policies on the purchase and use of digital equipment is critical. By aligning policies with sustainability goals, all Governments in the UK can actively contribute to shaping a more eco-conscious tech landscape. Scotland should align itself with the 2030 European Union targets for significantly reducing the use of materials and incorporating the climate impact of technology in upcoming laws and regulations on AI.

Those proposals collectively represent a comprehensive strategy to integrate sustainability into the technological landscape, ensuring that Scotland aligns with progressive European approaches for a more environmentally conscious future.

As we celebrate the strides made in Scotland’s tech sector, let us weave these principles into the fabric of our technological advancement. Scotland can be a beacon, not just for its technological prowess but for its embrace of technology that protects the planet, fosters social sustainability and champions a circular economy.


Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

This has been a very interesting debate so far, on a subject that we can all agree is of major importance. Much has already been said by others about Scotland’s proud history of science and innovation, from the television and the telephone to the tidal turbine and the modern toilet.

In a world where innovation and technology increasingly shape our everyday lives, Scotland has played a proud role. However, now we look to the future and how we can build on Scotland’s reputation by taking advantage of the opportunities that innovation brings.

We can also build on new technologies, such as AI.

“Artificial Intelligence is increasingly pivotal in shaping Scotland’s technological landscape, offering groundbreaking opportunities across various sectors.

AI’s role in Scotland’s tech sector is advancing technology and building a smarter, more efficient, and environmentally conscious future.”

I did not write that—AI did, and I suppose that it would say that. However, I have previously spoken in the Parliament about AI and the opportunities that it brings, as well as the challenges that we face because of it.

In my Highlands and Islands region, traditional sectors are embracing and benefiting from new technology. In agriculture, a sector in which I am involved, I have seen how technology has transformed our farm. It has been vital in increasing the efficiency of our crop and cattle production, in reducing emissions and in making farming safer than it was. At the Royal Highland Show last year, I spent much time speaking with operators about the potential of drones in agriculture, which could allow better access—for weed suppression, planting and other reasons—to previously hard-to-reach areas.

Scottish companies are making breakthroughs in vertical farming technology. Intelligent Growth Solutions in Dundee is developing a 900,000 square foot “game-changing” giga farm in the United Arab Emirates. That not only promotes Scottish research but signals our capability to improve agriculture globally.

As was highlighted earlier, there are further opportunities from gene editing, both for Scottish agriculture and for the businesses that support it. We just need the SNP to catch up, put aside its prejudices and allow the opportunities to be taken advantage of. That could have real benefits for our food security and for Scottish science and innovation.

Technological advances have also been driving change in our whisky industry, not only to boost production but, again, to integrate green technology into the processes and reduce emissions and the environmental impact.

Technology is also driving new industries. As a child, I remember work being done on wind turbines at Burgar Hill in Orkney. Now, tidal turbines and other forms of marine renewables are being developed at the European Marine Energy Centre’s Billia Croo site just outside Stromness in Orkney. Stromness is now home to Heriot-Watt University’s international centre for island technology, and Orkney is home to a number of leading players in the field, as well as the wider renewables sector that supports it.

As other members have mentioned, an increasingly important example of new technologies—and new opportunities—is the SaxaVord UK spaceport in Shetland, which plans to have its first launch later this year. Although it might not, certainly in the foreseeable future, be a base for interplanetary exploration, Shetland is boldly going where no Scottish island has gone before. SaxaVord, along with the site in Sutherland, is helping to support a growing space sector in Scotland, and it will be a crucial hub for technological innovation and space exploration. Such projects have already attracted considerable UK Government funding, as well as funding from major international players such as Lockheed Martin, thereby cementing Scotland’s place as a key player in the UK space industry. As deputy convener of the Parliament’s CPG on space, I very much welcome that.

The Highlands and Islands has always been an entrepreneurial and innovative region. Our geography has forced our people to look for solutions to the challenges that our rurality and remoteness set. That is why some of the Scottish Government’s decisions have been so disappointing. As Liam Kerr mentioned, in the latest SNP-Green budget alone, the Scottish National Investment Bank’s budget faces a staggering cut of £69 million, the budget for Highland and Islands Enterprise, which is crucial for development in my region, is being cut by £8 million, and, of course, budgets for further and higher education have also been slashed.

Those are real setbacks for innovation and growth. During my time on the Economy and Fair Work Committee, including in the inquiry that we undertook into business support, I saw some of the challenges that small innovative technology companies already faced when they were ready to scale up. If that support and the people and skills are not available, we risk innovators taking their ideas to more welcoming and supportive fiscal and regulatory climates. That is why the cuts and the Scottish Government’s decision to tax more heavily those whom we need to attract to this country—or, at least, encourage to stay—risk being so damaging. In the longer term, that will only discourage investment, stifle enterprise and dampen the entrepreneurship that is vital for technological advancement.

As members have highlighted, there are many good news stories on the subject, and there is much to be positive about, but that is because of Scotland’s innovative, entrepreneurial and creative people. We need a Government that recognises and supports the potential opportunities that investment in the technology sector brings. Unfortunately, given the Scottish Government’s record over 17 years, and the latest budget, we are still waiting for that.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Questions of technology are too important to be left to a small class of specialists and managers. In my view, technology should be used to help to transform, not entrench, existing relations of power. Its application should have social objectives, democratic objectives and egalitarian objectives, but, all too often, innovation and technology are directed to the wrong end—to warfare instead of peace; to the desires of the rich in place of the needs of the poor; and to trivial and harmful purposes instead of social, humanitarian and ecological ones.

That is why we say that we welcome the humanitarian aid provided by the Scottish Government to Gaza, but we ask: what good is it if we are also providing public funding to the high-tech arms manufacturers, based in Scotland, who are supplying the Israeli Government with the latest technology to bomb the people of Gaza? What good is that?

This afternoon’s Government motion speaks of a technology nation. The motion highlights

“inward investment and export opportunities”.

It is true that one of the challenges that we face in the Scottish economy is weak export performance and the negative balance of trade, but the challenge is not just limited to the deficit in the export of goods and services; it extends to the huge deficit created by the export of profits, the extraction of value and the outflow of wealth. It is a deficit that is made markedly worse by the SNP-Green Government’s obsession with the Ernst & Young index and foreign direct investment.

An important analysis on that has been published recently by the economist Dr Craig Dalzell, who warns that

“the level of profit extraction from Scotland is far too high for a country of our size and economic development.”

He estimates that it totals £10 billion a year.

It was a policy that began when the Tories were in charge of the Scottish economy, back in the 1980s and 1990s. Their strategy was to close down the mines, the shipyards, the steel mills and the factories and replace them with silicon glen by attracting a large, globalised and mainly anti-trade union electronics industry to Scotland. Almost all of it is now gone.

I am more convinced now than ever that what we need is an alternative economic strategy, and it is not one to be found in either the politics of nationalism or the economics of market capitalism. In fact, as Mariana Mazzucato has regularly reminded us, the state—the public sector—rather than venture capital and the private sector is the key actor in the innovation system. Yet, shockingly, some of the corporations that are most notorious for avoiding paying their share of tax, and so evading their contribution to the common good, are some of those very same tech giants, such as Apple, Google and Amazon, that benefit the most from it.

I note that Amazon is inviting us to join it in the Parliament next week to consider its research and development record. Well, I hope that it will also be able to tell us about its corporation tax record, its trade union recognition record, the ethics of its record as an employer on workers’ rights, human rights and equal rights, the use of zero-hours contracts, the computer tracking of so-called associates and its record on poverty pay. I hope that it will tell us its record on that.

It is time to think big and act radical, because there are far-reaching implications of technology for democracy. Unless we recognise that the market is not democratic, that we need to plan our economy and that we cannot go on simply producing according to private profit instead of according to social need, technology and AI will do nothing other than perpetuate biases and so deepen those inequalities of wealth and power. But I am not fatalistic—I think that transformative economic, social and environmental change is possible; that our universities continue to carry out important and socially useful research and development; that, with vision in politics, instead of people working for the economy, we can have an economy that works for the people; that we can stand up for democracy so that we have science in the service of the people, not in the service of monopoly interests; and that, in Scotland, we can take the lead, not only in pioneering this technology but in pioneering the democratic economy, promoting co-operatives and employee ownership, and extending collective rights and the redistribution of power that needs to go with that.

That has to be our priority. That is how progress will be made. That way, we can build, rooted in past experience, both progress in the present and hope for a better future.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Presiding Officer,

“Dare to be honest and fear no labour”,

wrote Robert Burns. On this, the national day, when we celebrate the works of the bard, it is an apt quote, as we use this debate to look to our future. Securing a place as a serious player on the global economic stage requires us to take seriously technology and innovation. That is—and should be—considered one of the most important investments in our nation. It is not just a worthwhile project for us all to benefit from here and now but a legacy for the next generation of Scots to build on. I encourage the Scottish Government to build on that future.

I come to this debate with optimism, as we recognise the fundamental role of technology, science and innovation in shaping our modern world, particularly as I intend to use the debate to discuss some of the work that is taking place in my constituency, Glasgow Kelvin. As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, it is institutions such as the University of Strathclyde that are not only carrying the torch of Scottish ingenuity but illuminating the path towards a brighter and more prosperous future for all of Scotland. Celebrating its diamond jubilee this year, Strathclyde has the unique distinction of having twice been named the UK university of the year. That is no small feat and speaks volumes about the institution’s commitment to excellence and its role as a driving force behind the Glasgow city innovation district and the advanced manufacturing district.

The university’s partnerships with global technological leaders such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and AstraZeneca are testament to its calibre and its pivotal role in the global innovation landscape.

I am curious to know what impact £28.5 million-worth of cuts to the sector would have on the world-leading outputs that the member is describing.

Kaukab Stewart

Any kind of cut would have an impact that none of us would want. However, the 1.2 per cent fall in the block grant, in real terms, has an impact. Capital spending is due to contract by about 10 per cent. I encourage members to engage with their Westminster counterparts to increase the budget allocations for Scotland.

I have mentioned the University of Strathclyde’s partnerships. The university’s expertise spans a vast array of fields, from 5G and communications to health tech, quantum and energy. Those are the areas that will define our future, and Strathclyde is at the forefront, leading the charge. Its network of industry-facing centres, including the Power Networks Demonstration Centre and the Advanced Nuclear Research Centre, are committed to addressing some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

The Glasgow city innovation district was founded by the University of Strathclyde in 2019. The district has an impact value, created by the university, of around £920 million. It is a vivid illustration of how innovation can drive economic growth and create opportunities. I would always encourage the Government to invest in such institutions because of the added value that they bring. Facilities such as the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland and the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre are more than just research centres; they are the groundwork for a manufacturing renaissance in Scotland, blending traditional expertise with cutting-edge technology. Strathclyde is at the forefront of sustainability and net zero research—a legacy that harks back to Professor James Blyth’s pioneering work in 1887. That commitment to sustainable innovation is integral to our shared vision of a green and prosperous Scotland.

At this point, I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I would like to highlight the profound impact of the Scottish schools education research centre—SSERC—of which I am proudly a board member. The centre is dedicated to enriching the professional learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics educators and practitioners across Scotland. We have heard from colleagues that we continue to have a shortage of teachers in that area. We have heard, too, about underrepresented groups in the field, so the work of SSERC is worth highlighting. It not only educates but inspires, and it ignites a passion for STEM fields among Scotland’s young learners, starting as early as age three.

According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, children as young as seven begin to limit their future career aspirations, which are influenced largely by their immediate environment and societal norms. That is why it is incredibly important that STEM careers are put in front of children at a very early age. Through partnerships with organisations such as Ocean Winds, the SSERC has funded programmes that bring practical, hands-on STEM learning into school, while upskilling educators and engaging students in real-world challenges.

I commend the Scottish Government’s commitment to STEM subjects and the STEM education and training strategy. I would be grateful if, in summing up, the minister would outline the Government’s future plans for STEM subjects and how it intends to expand STEM training and skills into the world of research and work.

Support for technology and innovation is about not just celebrating the triumphs of our past but investing in our future. I will finish, as I started, with a final quote from Burns, who wrote about education being valuable not just for education’s sake. He wrote:

“What’s a’ jargon o’ your Schools,
Your Latin names for horns an’ stools;
If honest Nature made you fools,
What sairs your Grammers?
Ye’d better taen up spades and shools,
Or knappin-hammers.”


Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

Technology, science and innovation have a crucial and ever-growing role in the modern world, as colleagues from across the chamber have said this afternoon. Technology plays a key role in solving many of the 21st century challenges that we face: the transition to a green economy; space, as Kenny Gibson and Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned; harnessing AI, which Clare Adamson spoke passionately about; supporting the increasing demand in social care and the wider public sector, as my colleague Daniel Johnson pointed out; and life sciences, as Ivan McKee mentioned.

Technology does not just enhance our society; it provides thousands of high-skilled jobs and generates inward investment and export opportunities. If we are to truly harness its potential—harness our technology prowess, as Maggie Chapman said—we must not just support the industry and its people today but look to the future to ensure that the next generation is inspired and supported to enter it in order to, as Brian Whittle said, lay the foundations of the future. That is what our amendment focuses on today.

As I am a wheelchair user and the daughter of an engineer, technology and engineering have not only been huge supports to me—the chair that I sit in, the adapted van that I drive and the aids and adaptations that I use—but brought income and joy to our family and our community. I have seen at first hand the incredible importance of technology, the talent in the industry that exists and the benefits that it brings.

As the minister recognised in his opening speech, our best natural resource is the talent of our people, and many of those who live in the Glasgow region and are supported by our outstanding colleges and universities are a great example of that. It concerns me, and it should concern the Government, too, that many young people are not getting the exposure that they need to the subjects—science, maths, engineering and computing—that support these industries, particularly in schools, which no longer provide the same opportunities that they once would have done.

It also concerns me that the Government has—as Liam Kerr called it—a stifling tendency to think in silos. The vision that the Government has set out does not and cannot happen by accident. It will happen only by design. As my colleague Richard Leonard pointed out, for the economy to work for all of us, it is important that we plan it that way and use technology for the good of people. To do that, the Government must work across silos, including in education, if it is to get anywhere near delivering the vision that it has set out.

We must address that. We must inspire and teach young people about the value of these subjects and support their provision from the early years to the workplace. That is why our amendment focuses on teachers, and it is why we are concerned about the findings from Mark Logan’s review that the number of computer studies teachers in Scotland is falling, as other members have said, and that Scotland’s education system is not currently set up to support a thriving technology sector. The most up-to-date statistics that are available demonstrate a worrying decline in the number of computer studies teachers in Scotland. In 2008, there were 766 computing teachers. In 2022, that figure was 588. We need more, not fewer, computing teachers.

The picture is not great in related subjects, either. The Government has failed to meet its target for new teachers in key subjects such as biology, the target on which was missed by more than a third; chemistry, the target on which was missed by more than two thirds; and computing and maths, in which less than half the target number of new teachers were recruited.

Attracting people to teaching is getting harder. Classrooms are particularly tricky places to be. The bursary scheme is massively underused, and fewer teachers are using the preference waiver scheme to address geographical difficulties. All that is having a real impact, not only on young people’s opportunities but on the economy and the potential of Scotland to be a nation of high-tech industry, and it undoubtedly contributes to a situation in which, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, only 55 per cent of young people say that they know what engineers do.

We must treat STEM subjects seriously if we are genuine in our ambition to be a competitive technology economy, and we must ensure that STEM is for everyone. I commend, as my colleague Kaukab Stewart has done, the work of SSERC in that area.

In Scotland in 2022, just 7 per cent of STEM apprentices in training were women. Is the member as concerned as I am about that? Does she regret the Government’s lack of attention to that fact?

Pam Duncan-Glancy

I deeply regret that statistic. We see the effect of that in education and apprenticeships, but it also leads through into the workplace—whereas 60 per cent of the workers in the care sector are women, women represent only 30 per cent of workers in the STEM sector. Of those who stay in the STEM sector, only 12 per cent ever obtain managerial positions. It is a matter of huge concern to me that that pipeline is not increasing in the way we need it to so that women and their innovation, which my colleague Martin Whitfield spoke about, can build our STEM economy for the future.

To create a Scotland that offers opportunities for all, we must smash every class and glass ceiling that stands in the way of our pursuing the skills of the future. My colleague Martin Whitfield passionately set out the reasons for doing that, which I outlined in my response to the intervention that I have just taken.

We know that girls are far more likely to undertake higher education in art and design, French, fashion, food tech and childcare, and that boys are more likely to study computing science, physics, engineering and graphic communication. That speaks to some of the problems that members have highlighted today with regard to equality in STEM.

We must use every opportunity to expose all young people to the broadest of skills, including in STEM, to address the shortages that exist in key sectors. We must be innovative in how we do that. We need to teach children that maths is useful and introduce them to real-life examples, as Martin Whitfield pointed out.

I am conscious of time, so I will finish on this point. Scottish Labour believes that the wider adoption of technology across our economy, the use of technology in the public sector, and the tech sector are all key to economic growth. We believe that Scotland will be a technology nation only if we become world class in each of those areas. That is why our amendment focuses on making that happen for the current and the next generation. That is why it calls on the Government to act urgently. It is a rallying cry for a concerted effort to deliver high and rising standards of STEM education in Scotland, so that the current and the next generation can lead the way in not simply the economies of the future but the dreams of the future.

We have time in hand for interventions.


Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

I am delighted to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.

Today’s debate has given Parliament the opportunity to acknowledge Scotland’s place as a hub of innovation, as the historical home of countless great minds and as a true technology nation. I will take a few moments to pay tribute to some of the great contributions that we have heard this afternoon. I was worried that, in such a short amount of time, I would not be able to say something about the speeches of everyone who has spoken, but, now that the Presiding Officer has said that we have some time in hand, I am sure that I will be able to cover the remarks of every speaker.

My colleague Brian Whittle rightly spoke about how education is what shapes tomorrow’s workforce and how it provides opportunity and sets a path for an individual’s life. However, as my colleague Liam Kerr pointed out, the motion utterly fails to appreciate that all the outcomes that it wants us to achieve are underpinned and driven by education, whether that is provided by schools, by colleges or by universities.

I absolutely agree with Daniel Johnson that we have much to do to become a tech leader compared to the rest of the world, and I, too, am amazed that the motion contains no mention of AI. Everyone out there is talking about AI, but the motion says nothing about it.

It was great to hear from Clare Adamson about the work that is being done at the campus of New College Lanarkshire and about the work on cobots.

Kenneth Gibson spoke about the CPG on life sciences, which promotes close co-operation and points out areas where policy can contribute to making Scotland a destination for individuals and companies that want to innovate and grow.

Martin Whitfield spoke about Sunamp, a company that has created a thermal battery that stores heat. It is world leading and has won many awards. All of that great work on technology is taking place in Scotland.

Ivan McKee rightly raised concerns about the closure of innovation centres and said that the Government needs to take a more joined-up approach.

My colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston said that we must not forget new technologies and opportunities such as the SaxaVord spaceport in Shetland, which is funded by the UK Government. Shetland is leading the way as no Scottish island has before.

Maggie Chapman spoke about sustainable technology and the need to harness technology for the good, while Richard Leonard spoke about the need for a new innovation strategy that goes beyond politics, nationalist or not.

Kaukab Stewart spoke really well about her constituency and about the work that is being done by the University of Strathclyde, along with key businesses such as Rolls-Royce, to create innovation in technology.

What has shocked me is that most members have spoken about education and about how important that is to technology yet there is no one here from the Scottish Government education team—no cabinet secretary, no minister—while the Opposition parties have deployed their front benches.

There have been a number of excellent contributions today, but I will highlight the importance of finance and fintech. It was great to hear the minister mention that sector.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I apologise to the member, because I was not here for the debate but have come for the summing up. On the subject of education and technology, I attended the Cadder primary school Burns supper and art exhibition last night. Much of the art that had been produced by the pupils was digital art, which shows that curriculum for excellence has embedded digital art in primary schools in my constituency. I am sure that the member would want to welcome that.

Pam Gosal

I absolutely welcome that. It is so important that we treat teachers with respect and that we have more teachers. Outcomes are more important than inputs, which is something that I have been speaking to local authorities about. I absolutely welcome any school doing innovative work with technology.

To return to finance and fintech, it is great that the minister, Richard Lochhead, spoke warmly about the Scottish fintech sector, which has grown by 50 per cent since the start of 2020 and already supports more than 8,500 jobs in Scotland. The gross value added by the Scottish fintech sector is predicted to increase to £2.1 billion by 2031. Scotland is the second-largest centre for fintech in the UK after London, so Scotland is already punching well above its weight in the UK market. That is why, last year, as convener of the cross-party group on India, I led the first cross-party delegation to India to help Scotland to connect with India’s fintech sector. It is great to see my colleague Sharon Dowey here today. She came to India with us, as did Kenneth Gibson, and Ivan McKee is a deputy convener of that cross-party group.

India is a world leader in fintech and has the world’s third-highest adoption rate for fintech. It is pushing forward with new technologies such as a data-sharing interface that can reduce the barriers to digital access across the country. Growing Scotland’s fintech sector even further will create more highly skilled jobs in Scotland, as well as new business opportunities. That will require working closely with leading fintech companies in countries such as India, sharing knowledge where possible. In the future, it will be vital that the Scottish Government plays its part in ensuring that the Scottish fintech sector continues to thrive. However, as it stands, the Scottish Government is not supporting our technology sector in the way that it should.

As our amendment highlights, Scotland has the highest tax burden in the United Kingdom, which risks driving away the top talent that our technology sector needs. Instead of cutting the budget of the Scottish National Investment Bank by £69 million, the SNP should be using SNIB to support innovation, such as the Scottish space sector, in our economy. We are also seeing a cut of more than £60 million to the enterprise trade and investment budget, which hardly sends the right message to innovators in the business community.

Given the SNP’s approach to business and innovation, it is hardly surprising that the entrepreneurship rate in Scotland is now lower than the UK average. Scotland is already a leading technology nation, but it has the potential to go even further. We must ensure that Scotland continues to be a place where innovation and technology can thrive, as is called for in our amendment. Economic growth and the growing technology sector should go hand in hand. Too often, we have heard empty promises from the SNP Government on economic growth—we have yet to see them translated into real policies.

However, we should not fear. Once again, the Scottish Conservatives have come to the rescue with our paper “Grasping the Thistle”, which sets out our vision of how to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in Scotland. We want to see a real vision for economic growth that encourages the creation of well-paid, highly skilled jobs, that truly keeps Scotland’s history as a hub of innovation, and that—I hope—the Scottish Government will now deliver.

I call Richard Lochhead to wind up and ask that he take us to decision time, at 5 o’clock.


Richard Lochhead

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I surely will do my utmost. There are quite a lot of points that I will do my best to respond to, but I want to start by thanking Kaukab Stewart for the Burns quotations. I also thank all members for their—in most cases— excellent and just about always thought-provoking contributions to this wide-ranging debate.

There are many different dimensions to the future of technology in Scotland, and many of the points that members raised would be worthy of a debate in their own right. There might be an opportunity for future debates on particular subjects and angles that have been raised by members. There is no way that we can cover all of them in motions or nine-minute opening speeches but, in my closing remarks, I will try to address a couple of the themes that members mentioned.

I also want to thank people outside the chamber. I posted on LinkedIn—which is a sign of technology, because it was not available a few years ago—about the fact that we are having this debate. There was substantial engagement from the technology sector in Scotland, which was excited about and welcoming of the fact that Parliament is debating Scotland being a technology nation. Many of the comments that were made by people in the sector echoed some of the themes that members raised. There is a lot of food for thought and a lot to think about as we go forward.

It is also worth reflecting on how things are changing at a phenomenal speed. The Parliament is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. A couple of years after the Parliament was set up and running in 1999, the iPod was released. The SNP Government was elected in 2007, the year in which the iPhone was released. Facebook happened in 2004. Since the SNP has been in government, we have seen Airbnb, Spotify, Uber and a host of other technological advancements in our society. AI, which I will turn to shortly, is now dominating the agenda to a great degree. That is all down to the increase in computing processing power and the internet, and AI is now taking it all to a different level. The prospect of quantum computing will change things completely again, if that comes to fruition in the coming years.

It is evident that Scotland’s high-tech sectors have captured the attention and imagination of not just members but the people of Scotland in a wider sense. That is absolutely right, given the importance of the subject of the debate, and its fundamental impact on our planet, our lives, our society and our economy.

When we were children growing up, some of the technologies that we used would also be used by us in old age. Nowadays, of course, the technology that children use changes radically—beyond recognition—even 10 or 20 years later, as they approach adulthood. That is how fast things change nowadays, due to computing processing power, compared with past generations. We cannot even begin to foresee what the situation will be in the next 25 years of the Parliament.

It is challenging to adapt to that situation in the right way. We have to be fleet of foot as a country, as a Government and as a Parliament.

Brian Whittle

I will go off on a tangent, as is my wont. The minister raised the prospect of how fast technology is developing. There is quite a lot of fear around the singularity of AI and where that might end up. What are the minister’s thoughts on that?

Richard Lochhead

I have visited Edinburgh Napier University, which is working on how robots can use AI to learn. That boggles the mind. It is important that we take advantage of AI, because it can achieve great things for society. That is why the Scottish Government has commissioned the Scottish AI Alliance to give us up-to-date advice, which we expect in the next few months, on the risks and opportunities for Scotland of AI. I would be delighted to bring that back to Parliament for a debate once the report is available.

I will touch on a couple of the themes that people mentioned. The first is digital inclusion, which was mentioned by several members, including some on the Labour benches. A theme of the progress of technology is how we ensure that people are not left behind and that we bring everyone with us. That is a big challenge, given the pace at which technology is changing. However, as members said, it is important.

Connecting Scotland is a Scottish Government programme that is delivered in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. It provides internet-enabled devices, connectivity and digital skills to support people who are digitally excluded. It has issued 61,000 devices since May 2020.

A lot of other work is now under way as part of the new digital inclusion alliance that has been formed with partners. Officials are also looking at the concept of a minimum digital living standard and how that could work in Scotland. That is exciting and important. It is work in progress, but it is an indication of how the issue of digital exclusion is taken seriously.

Liam Kerr

I appreciate that it might be a little difficult for the minister to answer this question, because his education colleagues have not joined him but, according to a Scottish employers’ skills survey in 2021, more than a third of applicants for skill-shortage vacancies lacked basic IT, numeracy and digital skills. What, specifically, is the Government doing in schools to address that?

Richard Lochhead

I thank Liam Kerr for raising that point, because I was just coming to that theme. Many members mentioned the issue of education and skills, which is absolutely fundamental to the future.

It is not just a Scottish issue. In UK-wide employer surveys that were published in September 2023, a majority of technology companies said that there was a shortage of IT skills. The issue is very real and applies not just to Scotland but across all our islands. We face similar challenges, and I am sure that they apply across western Europe and not just to the UK. We must work together to address the issue.

The Labour Party amendment does not characterise the current situation, because, as a result of Mark Logan’s review, we have taken a number of steps. Existing steps in Scotland include our offer of bursaries of up to £20,000 for career changers to train to become STEM teachers. The review by Mark Logan has led to other steps. We have formed Scottish Teachers Advancing Computing Science, which is run by computing science teachers and is about spreading best practice in computing science across all our schools. A suite has been created of resources and programmes for teaching upskilling.

We have also made available £1.3 million for schools to bid for additional equipment to transform their teaching of computing science. Over the piece, 280,000 devices have already been provided to learners. Steps are under way and are being taken.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

I do not—and nor does our amendment—suggest that nothing is being done, but the fact remains that the amendment is factually accurate. The Government has missed its target on computing science teachers by half, and we know that fewer people are getting involved in those subjects. It is therefore perfectly fair to characterise the situation as we have done in our amendment, and I would like to think that the Government will accept that.

Richard Lochhead

Pam Duncan-Glancy made a number of valuable contributions to the debate. That is one. It is a very serious issue, and we take that challenge head on. I simply make the point that the amendment mischaracterises the situation, because a number of steps are in the pipeline as a result of the Mark Logan review. We are hopeful that they will deliver results, but that is not reflected in the Labour Party’s amendment, which is perhaps a bit too negative, given that a lot of steps are being taken.

I want to make an important point to the chamber. In the context of today’s debate and working with technology sectors, I am lucky enough to be trade minister as well as minister for small business, tourism, and innovation. In the past few weeks, I have lost count of the number of people who I have been in communication with or met who are involved in technology in Scotland, in our universities or in the private sector. Virtually all of them said to me that the reason why their businesses are expanding in Scotland—I gave plenty of evidence of that being the case in my opening speech—and the reason why Scotland is outperforming the UK and Europe in relation to the growth of inward investment projects, which I am also told by overseas companies, with my trade hat on, is that they want to come to Scotland because of the talent pool, skills and pipeline of skills that we have in this country.

I understand that the pipeline of skills for the future through our schools and colleges is a very serious issue. That is a difficult challenge that we have to take head on, as I said. However, we should not talk ourselves down, because the rest of the world is talking about how great the skills pipeline is in Scotland and how talented and skilled our people are for the industries that we are speaking about. Especially on Burns day, when we talk about how Scotland is viewed across the world, we should recognise that and remember that a lot of people view us as having a lot of talent in this country.

Ivan McKee and others mentioned the innovation strategy, which is under way. Another massive game-changing challenge is how we have more companies that are innovative and active, and how we declutter the landscape. I agree with Daniel Johnson that the innovation landscape is far too cluttered. I think that Ivan McKee would agree as well. That is outlined in the strategy document and, speaking as a minister trying to get my head round the innovation landscape in Scotland, it is complex and cluttered. I agree with the comments that have been made in the chamber that we have to declutter the landscape.

I am not quite sure where we will end up, but we are looking at that in 2024 as part of implementing the innovation strategy. I can also tell Ivan McKee that we are speaking to universities about the new innovation funds that they are working with—particularly Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities. I also mentioned previously the entrepreneurial campuses that are being developed across Scotland to promote that culture, with businesses, academia and students and so on working together to create new start-ups. That is also a very exciting concept.

As part of the innovation landscape, I mentioned in my opening speech the amount of investment that is happening across Scotland, which is pretty phenomenal. I cannot remember anything like it, and I have been in Parliament since 1999. A huge amount of investment has been taking place in Scotland across the past two or three years alone, getting Scotland ready for the future in relation to today’s debate and the future of technology, innovation, high-quality jobs and boosting our economy.

For example, there is the £75 million national manufacturing institute for Scotland; the £22 million national robotarium; the £42 million for the delivery of the Techscaler network; the £60 million for the Michelin Scotland innovation park; the £1 billion of investment, which I mentioned, over a number of years for digital connectivity infrastructure; the £155 million for innovation centres in recent years and, most recently, the £88 million for the medicines manufacturing innovation centre, which other members mentioned. There is also the £20.5 million for the Fraunhofer centre for applied photonics in Glasgow, the £40 million for the Aberdeen biohub, the £180 million for the net zero technology centre in Aberdeen and the £1.9 billion investment in the city region and growth deals, which are full of innovation projects the length and breadth of Scotland.

That is not just Scottish Government investment. A lot of it is from the private sector and from local government, of course, and the UK Government contributes to a number of those projects. That is a phenomenal amount of investment in Scotland’s future and making sure that Scotland is ahead of the game when it comes to being a technology nation.

I will close now, Presiding Officer. Although I have a lot more to say, it looks as though I have already used my extra minutes.

I thank members for their contributions. We are on the cusp of amazing things in Scotland as we become a technology nation, with all the potential that that holds. It includes the potential for the public sector to save money and to deliver better services for people, and for health innovation to transform people’s ageing process and their quality of later life, as well as tackling the challenges that our country faces on health profiles and a whole host of other areas. Saving the planet, achieving the energy transition and playing our role in saving humankind are also important. Scottish technology is at the forefront of that.

I believe that we have enormous potential to become one of the world’s leading technology nations. We just have to play our cards right in the next few years and ensure that that is the case. I commend the motion to Parliament.