Science sets out its stall

John Tucker puts the role of the Welsh Government’s new Chief Scientific Adviser under the spotlight

Professor John Harries, the Welsh Government’s recently appointed Chief Scientific Adviser, set out his stall at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s sixth annual conference, Science and the Assembly 2010 at the Millennium Centre in May. Professor Harries, who will continue to occupy the Chair in Earth Observation at Imperial College London for 20 per cent of his time, listed five objectives for his role in Wales:

• Review the large number of initiatives and projects currently live in Wales and achieve some co-ordination.

• Decide on the priorities that Wales, as a small country, should be concentrating on.

• Create advisory networks to provide high quality expertise and evidence for government.

• Promote collaboration between university, government and industrial laboratories so that world-class science, and creative innovation and enterprise can flourish.

• Develop a new profile for science in Wales that will raise public interest and increase confidence.

The first task listed here is more formidable than it sounds. There are hundreds of initiatives designed to connect science and scientists with schools, universities, companies, and communities – some initiatives are very large, due to EU Convergence Funding. It will be extremely difficult for Professor Harries to keep track of all this activity. Indeed, the average university cannot keep track of its own contributions to any broad subject area. How does one coordinate what one cannot keep track of? Professor Harries will need all the advisory networks he can command to have a sense of the constant innovation that is taking place in many technical fields at many levels and in many countries.

Most research and development in Wales involves the universities. An issue Professor Harries will need to address is that University funding for science in Wales over the last 20 years has been shamefully lower than England and Scotland. In his inaugural lecture last month, the first President of the Learned Society of Wales, Sir John Cadogan, estimated that over the past decade the higher education funding gap between Scotland and Wales has accumulated to £900 million.

In April a National Science Academy for Wales was announced by the Deputy Minister for Science, Innovation and Skills, Lesley Griffiths, to enhance the supply of knowledge and skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects.  The idea first surfaced as a clause in the One Wales coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid in June 2007.

I don’t know what the authors of this commitment had in mind. Certainly, the organisation envisaged would not qualify as a ‘national academy’ under a standard meaning the term. Nearly two years on from the commitment the consultants Old Bell 3 and Dateb were hired to investigate what the idea might mean and what form a National Science Academy might take. The report delivered in May last year was well done and mapped out what one might do with a few million pounds. An annex to the document listed over 70 organisations on the Welsh scene – to which many more could be added. One year later comes the press release that announces that the new Academy will ensure Wales has a continuous pipeline of people graduating from colleges and universities with the appropriate qualifications and skills. But it doesn’t explain how in practical terms this will be achieved. In any event, since scientists and technologists are mobile, what will encourage them to work in Wales?

The new Academy will be of interest to Professor Harries. Indeed, he is said to be responsible for its strategic direction. Although this new project was a seed floating on the wind for three years, now that it has found a home, it could grow strong and bear fruit if tended by experienced hands. Alternatively, of course, it could add to the jungle of initiatives. I could not find out much more than what was said in the April press release, which did not quite match the scheme in the consultant’s report.

The scientific community in Wales is neither new, small nor undistinguished in achievement. However, it is unconnected, institutionally weak and, until recently, politically marginal. Science is much talked about in contemporary policies but scientists are not engaged. The IWA has done a great deal to bring science and scientists into mainstream civic debate and is committed to do more. Now, at the heart of government, the community has one of its own.

Of course, Professor Harries is not there for the benefit of the scientific community. His responsibility is to underpin the government of Wales with excellent scientific advice. Government is primarily interested in its mainstream responsibilities – the economy, health, education, transport, energy, and so on -. Such topics must always be in view for the Chief Scientific Adviser, as must the aftermath of such ‘events’ as sick badgers, volcanic ash and oil pollution. Science offers to government public and defensible ways of reflecting on problems and better understanding of decisions.

At the same time many in the scientific community in Wales will turn to Professor Harries to improve the lot of science in Wales. They will need to be proactive in engaging with him. I hope and believe there will be a quid pro quo.

John Tucker is Professor of Computer Science at Swansea University and is chair of the IWA’s Swansea Bay Branch

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