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The Role of Science and Engineering in shaping the future of Wales

25 Nov 2016

Professor Peter Halligan, CE of the Learned Society of Wales, discusses some of the strengths of the Welsh research base, the challenges ahead and the current strategies being used to overcome them.

Wales has a proud tradition of achievement in science and technology. The theory of natural selection, the early development of crystallography, the discovery of free radicals and meson decay, the invention of the microphone, the fuel cell and the teleprinter, and more recently, ground-breaking research into embryonic stem cells are all part of Wales’ scientific tradition.

Despite historical under-funding, several of Wales’s universities boast examples of outstanding science research – from Nobel Laureates in the life sciences research at Cardiff University, to the award-winning Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Ibers) in Aberystwyth, Swansea’s innovative advances in materials research and testing, and Bangor’s impressive work in the fields of environmental protection.

Over the past decade, Wales’ universities have demonstrated strong growth in many areas of science, including renewable energy, environmental sciences, social and biosciences. An independent Elsevier report in 2013 showed that the impact of Wales’ internationally recognised research had risen significantly over the previous 10 years outperforming many similar-sized countries and making a real contribution to the UK’s world-leading research base. Moreover, it showed that research inputs from Wales were highly productive and efficient despite comparatively low levels of funding and a small STEM research base.

Last year, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education published a paper on the Case for Growing STEMM Research Capacity in Wales providing a comprehensive review and explanation for what appeared to be Wales’ historical poorer comparative research performance when research council income was used as a key indicator. Using a longitudinal, policy related analysis, Halligan and Bright’s research paper showed that the critical problem lay not in the quality of the science being done in Wales, but rather with the inadequate size of the science base and the number of researchers in STEMM. Deriving a more complete picture of the STEMM shortfall in Wales, Halligan and Bright calculated the total number of STEMM academic researchers in the four UK nations. Using Wales’s population share of total UK academics engaged in research they found that the academic research workforce was some 0.5% below Wales’s population standard share. Despite this discrepancy, independent evidence showed that relatively low levels of Research Council income and QR funds had nevertheless been effectively translated into high impact research. A recent Elsevier report (2016) confirmed this trend with the average number of citations for publications from researchers in Wales increasing since 2011 to above the UK average and with Welsh researchers collaborating more internationally.

In 2012, the Welsh Government published it’s new Science for Wales strategy, which outlined a five-year vision to make science a centerpiece of the Welsh economy through creating research jobs and new businesses. The first phase of this Sêr Cymru strategy saw a £50 million commitment to bring prestigious research chairs to Welsh universities and also support national research networks in three “grand challenge” areas: life sciences and health; low carbon, energy, and environment; and advanced engineering and materials. In December 2015, a second £60 million phase of Sêr Cymru, was launched by the CSA, aimed at further boosting research capacity by offering support for 120 fellowships to mid- or early-career scientists and those currently on a career break. Like all large complex change projects, it will take several years to fully capture the impact of new Sêr Cymru planned initiatives.

Despite these encouraging developments, the research future for the UK and Wales remains much less certain after the June referendum vote. Over the following months, the UK Government will decide the terms on which it wishes to negotiate continued access and participation in EU-funded research. This will not be without its challenges, as negotiations will cover issues which have been devolved within the UK, and where it will be important that Wales’ voice and interests are clearly heard when establishing any new future UK arrangements.

Ensuring that Wales has the future research capacity to win greater competitive funding to build a strong and sustainable science base will require ongoing investment and a long-term strategy that provides a future roadmap where universities can manage to balance their research and educational missions with the growing demand to operate in an internationally competitive higher education sector.

For more information visit the Learned Society of Wales

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