Monday, August 29, 2011



Earlier this week, the Welsh Government’s chief scientific adviser produced his excellent report on a strategic agenda for science in Wales.

Long overdue, Professor John Harries pointed out some of weaknesses that prevail in Wales and promised that science would be planned and led more effectively for the benefit of all of us.

To achieve this, the agenda would strive to increase the quality and reputation of Welsh universities as powerhouses of the ideas world, to teach and carry out top class research. It would also create an environment in which the business, academic and public sector worlds work ever closer, encouraging innovation and cooperation, to translate excellent research into good business.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would aim to increase the number and quality of jobs in industry, commerce, education, research, and innovation.

Indeed, one of the main driving forces throughout his report is that a more effective and coherent university sector, with a well-planned process of collaborating and growing skills and expertise, would help to grow the Welsh economy.

It has certainly rekindled the debate about the role of higher education in developing the prosperity of the nation although some will argue that the thrust of the current higher education strategy will do little to help in this respect i.e. all four of the main research-based universities – Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth – are remaining autonomous institutions for the foreseeable future, with only the less research intensive colleges being encouraged to merge.

But is Professor Harries stating anything new?

Back in November 2002, I produced a report for the National Assembly’s Economic Development Committee on the state of research and development in Wales.

Even then, it pointed out that Welsh Universities were only receiving only 3.6 per cent of total UK research council income for higher education, just slightly higher than the 3.3 per cent reported for 2010.
Therefore, nearly nine years later, the research funding situation has hardly changed at all.

Of course, the “elephant in the room” is whether research council funding, like other higher education budgets, should be devolved to the Welsh Government. Having raised the issue with senior individuals within the Welsh university sector, there seems to be a general reluctance to do this because of unfounded fears on the levels of quality.

Yet, if this could be addressed properly, then it would secure an additional £28 million per year for Welsh academic research. Certainly, with a potential of £140 million of additional research funds that could be made available over the term of the Assembly, it should be a debate that our politicians should be leading when they reconvene next month.

But it is not the funding alone.

As I pointed out in the 2002 report, what was needed than, and now, was a clear strategic vision for the development of science, technology and innovation policy and its impact on government, industry, higher education and society. Until now, that has been sadly missing in Wales since devolution began.

Contrast that with what has been happening across the Irish Sea.

Over a decade ago, the Irish Government created an organisation called Science Foundation Ireland that committed hundreds of millions of pounds to establish a strong research capability in Ireland. More importantly, it had already adopted one of the Harries recommendations and scoured the world’s universities to attract the best scientists and their research teams to Ireland to build up critical areas such as biosciences.

Having worked in the sector for over twenty years, I sincerely believe that we have the knowledge and expertise within our university sector to make a real difference to the technological capability of the Welsh economy. However, what is needed is for the Welsh Government to help fight the corner for fair research funding for Wales and, more critically, for the higher education to work together as a unit to develop a coherent strategy for Wales.

Government could start with addressing the fallacy that sees the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of the South East of England, London and the East of England getting 60 per cent of central government research funding as compared to 1 per cent for Wales. This means that, if we apply the Barnett formula to this public money as it should be, a further £96 million in funding is lost to Wales every year.

That is simply unacceptable in this day and age and our politicians must look, as the Swedish Government did in the 1970s with spectacular results, to spread the wealth outside of the more prosperous regions and to use research as the basis for economic renewal.

Certainly, I don’t expect another nine years to go by without action to secure a proper research and innovation policy that not only takes devolution into account, but finally helps to transform Wales into a small clever country.