I heard today that Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Government, John Harries, has called for Welsh universities to be more “predatory” in attracting “star researchers” to Wales. At first sight I thought that sounded like good news for astronomy, but reading the article more closely I realise that’s not what he meant!
The point is that, according to the BBC article, Welsh universities currently only attract about 3% of the UK’s research funding whereas the famous Barnett formula allocates Wales about 5% of the total in other areas of expenditure. Nobody involved in research would argue for funds to be allocated on any other basis than through quality, so there’s no clamour for having research funding allocated formulaically a là Barnett; the only way to improve the success rate is to improve the quality of applications. John Harries suggests that means poaching groups from elsewhere who’ve already got a big portfolio of research grants…
The problem with that strategy is that it’s not very easy to persuade such people to leave their current institutions, especially if they’ve already spend years acquiring the funding needed to equip their laboratories. It’s not just a question of moving people, which is relatively easy, but can involve trying to replace lots of expensive and delicate equipment. The financial inducements needed to fund the relocation of a major research group and fight off counter-offers from its present host are likely to be so expensive that the benefit gained from doing this takes years to accrue, even they are successful.
I agree with Prof. Harries that Welsh universities need to raise their game in research, but I don’t think this “transfer market” approach is likely to provide a solution on its own. I think Wales needs a radical restructuring of research, especially in science, across the whole sector, which I think is unacceptably complacent about the challenges ahead.
For a start, much more needs to be done to identify and nurture younger researchers, i.e. future research stars rather than present ones. Most football clubs nowadays have an “academy” dedicated to the development of promising youngsters, so why can’t we do a similar thing for research? Research groups in different Welsh universities also need to develop closer collaborations, and perhaps even full mergers, in order to compete with larger English institutions.
More controversially I’d say that the problem is not being helped by Welsh universities continuing to be burdened by the monstrous bureaucracy and bizarre practices of the Research Excellent Framework, which allocates “QR” research funds according to priorities set by HEFCE in a way that reflects the thinking of the Westminster parliament. The distribution of QR funding in Wales, which is meant to supplement competitive grant income from UK funding bodies, should be decided by HEFCW in line with Welsh strategic priorities. Wales would be far better off withdrawing from the REF and doing its own thing under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly Government.
What I’m saying is that I’ve got nothing against Welsh universities trying to entice prominent research leaders here; we’ve recently tried (unsuccessfully) to do it here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, in fact. But in the current funding climate it’s not easy to persuade their current institutions to let them go. In any case, I don’t think parachuting in a few high-profile individuals will in itself solve the deep-rooted problems of the Welsh university system. A longer term strategy needs to be found.
Scotland already punches above its weight in terms of research income for its universities and there’s no reason why, in the long run, Wales can’t do likewise.Follow @telescoper