Case study 05

Margaret McKeen

James Hutton Institute

Graphic of Europe

Margaret McKeen, a research scientist at the James Hutton Institute, explains the significance of EU funding to boosting social innovation.

Margaret McKeen and her research group at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, are part of a multinational project studying social innovation in rural areas.

Social innovations are ideas that improve quality of life for individuals and communities by meeting their social needs.

Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA) is a Horizon 2020 European Commission project running from April 2016 to April 2020. It targets European and Mediterranean regions, with many of the project case studies focused on the marginalised communities surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

The researchers are also looking into social innovation closer to home. Margaret applies her expertise in spatial analysis to studies of renewable energy in Scotland.

“We look for areas where social innovation could have the best impact,” she says. “For example, an area with bad power connection could benefit from support for a renewable energy project. That might involve advice, low interest loans, or even enterprise grants.”

At a time when public money is limited, investment in social innovation can optimise returns. “Understanding the potential impacts of innovations helps governments and regional authorities prioritise funding and services.”

SIMRA is worth more than €5.5m, and involves 26 international partners. “Our partner organisations bring different perspectives and social knowledge,” says Margaret.

“We need to ensure that the project objectives apply internationally, across different cultures and governance.”

The James Hutton Institute is responsible for coordinating the project. This strategic role illustrates how international collaboration extends the UK’s scientific influence beyond national borders.

SIMRA is just one of the many EU projects that fund research at the James Hutton Institute. A recent monthly snapshot showed that more than €3m of the institute’s income was from the EU and the significance of this funding is only increasing.

“As Scottish Government funding continues to be cut, we rely more and more on other sources. If we lose access to EU funds, it will be a massive blow to science,” Margaret warns.

“I worry the scientific community will lose impartiality because we will be more dependent on commercial funders. In medicine we see life-saving drugs that the NHS can’t afford due to drug companies’ pricing policies. There are cases where crops created for the conditions in developing countries can’t be used there because companies have monopolies on the seed. We need independent funding to make sure the research we do is what’s needed, and not just to suit commercial agendas.”