Research is vital to Wales’ prosperity

Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott considers Professor Graeme Reid’s recently published review of government-funded research and innovation in Wales

Yesterday the Welsh Government published Professor Graeme Reid’s eagerly anticipated review of government-funded research and innovation in Wales. While for most people topics such as ‘quality research funding’ and ‘UK-wide funding competitions’ will rarely come to mind or warrant discussion, the impact of such things is felt by every person in Wales in many ways, including through economic growth, jobs and investment.


It’s fair to say that Wales has faced challenges in these areas for many years. Investment in research and development is typically measured as proportion of gross value added (GVA) and the figures show that currently Wales invests 1.2% of GVA into research and development, compared to 1.7% in Scotland and 2% in England.


But despite this, there is much for us to be proud of in our research and innovation work in Wales. We have heard often about how Wales is a leading academic destination for research and has the highest proportion of world-leading research in terms of its impact in the UK. Nearly half of Welsh research papers were internationally co-authored and much of the work done in Wales is at the cutting edge including work in compound semiconductors, energy storage, cyber security and life sciences as well as energy capture and storage and advanced manufacturing.


So why does this matter? Because research and innovation are understood to be key drivers of economic growth. Since 1997, Wales has had a lower gross value added per head than England, Scotland and Northern Ireland so if we are to improve the economic growth of Wales, then funding for research and innovation is one of the most important levers we have.


And while universities are a key part of the research and innovation ecosystem across the UK, they are particularly so in Wales. UK-wide, in 2016 universities accounted for 24% of research expenditure but in Wales they accounted for 43%. This means that universities play a proportionally more important role in Wales’ economic growth than elsewhere in the UK.


Professor Reid’s report grasps these challenges and presents some important recommendations to tackle them. The recommendations recognise the changing picture of research in the UK and the balance of opportunities shifting from European funding to UK-wide funding through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The additional funding made available by UKRI through funding competitions – an enormous £4.7bn over 4 years –  offers a new opportunity for Wales to capitalise on the excellent work being done by our universities and to secure additional funding for the kinds of activities that will grow Wales’ economy. This is why Professor Reid recommends that the Welsh Government establishes a Welsh Research and Innovation London Office, to help improve the visibility of the work being done in Wales.


Bringing in additional funding to Wales requires a solid base of research and innovation infrastructure. In the report, Professor Reid highlights quality research (QR) funding as his highest priority for the Welsh Government and recommends that funding is not only maintained but increased as one strand to help boost productivity in Wales. QR funding is vitally important for providing universities with a stable funding stream which can be used to support the bedrock of research infrastructure, and enables universities to secure competitive funding from outside Wales.


Another important part of the report is its third recommendation to increase the visibility, coherence and impact of research and innovation in Wales by creating a single overarching brand for its new fund for innovation activities: The St David’s Investment Fund. One of the aims of such a fund is to help businesses and other institutes integrate Welsh Government support with what is available elsewhere.  


The report recognises an existing close link between universities and business research and development in Wales, but recommendations such as those around the St David’s Investment Fund present opportunities to build even further on university and business collaborations. Universities can play an important role in facilitating collaboration and bringing together diverse partners from across Wales, supporting businesses to bid for funding from across the UK and beyond.


The report comes at an important time for Wales as we face a period of unprecedented change. As well as the challenges Wales faces as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, advances in technology mean that the Welsh workforce may also soon undergo significant change with some predicting that around one in three jobs are at risk of automation. The recommendations included in the report provide a way forward to grow research and innovation activity in Wales and in doing so, make Wales a more prosperous country for all.

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Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott, is Chair of the Universities Wales Pro Vice Chancellor Network and Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Research and Innovation and Strategic Development at Swansea University

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