Sêr Cymru

The Welsh Government’s vision for a world-leading science base in Wales was unveiled on Thursday 15 March during a keynote address by Wales’ Chief Scientific Officer, Professor John Harries, who delivered a public lecture at Cardiff University to reveal how he thinks this strategic agenda can steer Welsh science and engineering into the future.

Here is the lecture in its entirety

One the principal components this strategy is the Sêr Cymru (“Star Wales”) project which will involve expenditure of about £50 million over 5 years to attract research leaders to Wales. This announcement attracted quite a lot of local news coverage, e.g in the Western Mail, but it isn’t exactly a new proposal. In fact I blogged about it several months ago. Here is a summary of the points I made back then together with some new comments.

The basic point is that Welsh universities currently only attract about 3% of the UK’s total research funding whereas the famous Barnett formula allocates Wales about 5% of the total in other areas of public 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 in Wales? 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.

In fact there are dark rumours circulating that HEFCW will not have enough money to pay any QR funding anyway. If that’s true then the widening funding gap between Wales and England will do more damage than can possibly be remedied by importing a few big shots from elsewhere. The sum involved (£50 million) seems like a lot, but it won’t pay for more than a few groups around Wales if they are in experimental science or engineering technology, because the cost of setting up new labs and acquiring new equipment is considerable. Although buying in mercenaries might be of short-term benefit, what are the chances that they’ll take someone else’s dollar in the near future?

Wales needs a sustainable research base, so at very least I’d like to see a bottom-up project, encouraging younger researchers at PhD and PDRA level, perhaps through a system of national fellowships, to complement the “top-down” of the Star Wales project. Unless that happens, we might have leaders with no-one to follow them.

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5 Responses to “Sêr Cymru”

  1. Pulling out of REF might just give the Welsh universities that extra bit of pull to attract groups, but clearly investing in promising young researchers is the correct thing to do, so much so that it is unlikely to happen. When STFC funding was squeezed, the first thing to be pulled was the postdoctoral fellowship scheme… crazy.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I agree with a lot that Peter has written in his essay above.

    The objective behind the Sêr Cymru scheme of increasing Welsh success in winning UK-wide research grants is vitally important. The Welsh government is absolutely right in that policy.

    Poaching parts of research groups from elsewhere could have an immediate benefit for Welsh academia. In the physical sciences, for example, the core of the Swansea particle physics group came of course from Imperial College London in the early 1990s, while the core of the Cardiff astronomical instrumentation group moved from Queen Mary in the early 2000s.

    However, universities are very aware of the danger that other institutions can poach their staff and already tend to promote reasonably talented established academics in the hope of retaining them. New appointments to lectureships are often made in the fields of established professors to keep those professors in the university. So there are limitations to the success of a policy of persuading senior academics to move. The new Sêr Cymru scheme may be more successful in attracting more junior established academics before they are appointed to chairs.

    I agree very strongly with Peter that significantly more success could be achieved in trying to attract to Wales talented researchers who have not already established their own research groups, and in supporting such researchers already within Wales.

    There are a number of acute weaknesses in the British academic research system. The worst of these are the very poor career system for junior researchers, the small number of permanent jobs relative to the number of talented researchers on short-term contracts, and the strong ageism within the system which forces out those people who do not land a lectureship within a decade or so of completing their PhDs. Using available money to tackle these specific problems within Welsh academia might be a better way of winning more UK-wide research grants. The £50 million cost of Sêr Cymru could instead be used to establish new lectureships and fellowships. A Welsh fellowship system could be very effective if it avoided the mistakes of UK-wide schemes – for example, enabling candidates to apply without the need for the support of a host institution at the time of application, without any restrictions on time since PhD completion, and with a more generous financial package to the university if it commits itself to a permanent contract to the holder when the fellowship expires.

  3. Wales has a unique advantage: it is a small country next to a relatively large one (England; OK they are both part of the UK but that is not the point) which has the possibility to attract people from the larger country (and elsewhere) without a language barrier (as long as learning Welsh is not a requirement). Thus, a truly good approach would show fruit much more quickly than a similar programme in, say, Slovenia or Estonia, hopefully forcing others to follow suit.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that’s right, and that is exactly what universities in Wales and the Welsh Government should be doing. A small country should have the advantage of flexibility and the ability to change policies to respond to opportunities.

      However, I fear that relatively few people in Wales realise that. They tend not to see the opportunities as much as they should.

  4. […] wish Prof. Davis every success in his new role, my reaction to the SFI scheme is very similar to my view of the Sêr Cymru (“Star Wales”) project which began a few years ago when I was working in Cardiff, with the aim of attracting `research […]

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