Stellar Research?

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.

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6 Responses to “Stellar Research?”

  1. “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!”

    Reminds me of the story Carl Sagan told about asking for a book about stars at the library. He got one about Clark Gable etc. He took it back, saying that that was not the kind of stars he meant and noted that the librarian smiled, though at the time he didn’t know why.

  2. Bit of a chicken and egg here. Can’t attract big players unless you’ve got the reputation and the facilities… can’t get the reputation and facilities (funding) unless you attract, develop and hold onto the premier league players. Stars enticed by good packages (to feed the pocket) and ‘power’ (to feed th ego) are more likely to move on when the next offer comes along. Heart’s not in it. No sustainability.
    Cardiff dosen’t have the history to compete with Oxbridge etc. for kudos, so it must play a different game. I would like to think this is about good fundamental research environment and behaviour that becomes naturally attractive to the red giants, as well as nuturing & holding to it’s own talent. Self funding must play it’s part e.g. Clever shareholding of spin-outs, executuve courses etc. Gives an organisation a lot more confidence if it can come up with the cash for some things without having to beg for it elsewhere. Snow-ball effect.
    S’pose what i’m saying is that it’s too simplistic to just poach talent and the answers are a lot more systemic.
    [Must declare that I have an unfunded 'toe' in the door at CU, so my views are not entirely neutral].

    Telescoper, what attracted you to Cardiff University ?

    • telescoper Says:

      There were a number of reasons why I chose to move, but the most important factor was research, specifically the presence of experimental projects close to my theoretical interests. Not everything went to plan – one major project I wanted to get involved in was cancelled – but I have been reasonably successful at bringing research grants in since I moved here and feel that my research is valued here. That wasn’t true at my previous institution, where I had very heavy teaching and administration loads and was clearly being manouevred into a non-research (i.e. teaching-only) position. Not that I dislike teaching – it’s just that I like research also. In Cardiff I have a manageable teaching load.

      I also find Cardiff a really fascinating place to live, especially because I like classical music and opera both of which are available here to amuch greater extent than equivalent sized English cities and at much lower cost than in London.

      I should also point out that as a theorist I don’t really need much in the way of facilities, so didn’t need much of a dowry to make me move, but I have been treated very well by Cardiff University over the last few years. I’ve also been exceptionally fortunate to have a truly excellent Postdoc and PhD students, and I’ve been mightily impressed with the standard of undergraduate physics students here, the best of whom are as good as you’ll find anywhere.

      I am a bit nervous about the future, in terms of changes to universities, but there’s just as much upheaval in England so that’s just a sign of the times not a consequence of moving to Wales. I just hope the WAG and HEFCW resist the English stampede to turn universities into factories.

  3. Just re-read the piece on the BBC. Notably :”He called for a greater focus on three “grand challenge” areas – life sciences and health, environment energy and low carbon, and advanced engineering and materials”. Surprise, surprise, pretty much exactly what UKG & WG call for in bugetary docs. Ah, money for tangible outcomes. More “development” than research I would say. I’ve been in business long enough to understand cost/benefit is important, but that you can’t always apply it to research ideas inthe first instance.
    Also see that they praise the ILS at Swansea. My wife did her doctorate there. Great labs. From what I understand the keys to funding were as much the people & connnections, as well as research quality. It’s what you know AND who you know. Good luck !

    • telescoper Says:

      I have no problem with the greater focus, but experience with heavy “top-down” management suggests that it is unlikely to be successful if imposed from above. Moreover, it neglects key connections between research and teaching. There are many subjects not directly connected with the areas mentioned that nevertheless bring significant research funding into Wales. Astronomy, for example, brings in several million to Cardiff which, according to the BBC figures (which I’m not sure are accurate) is a large slice of Wales’ £50 million given that there’s only a handful of astronomers here.

      It’s right that Wales should try to build on its strengths in, e.g., engineering however.

  4. [...] “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! …” (more) [...]

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