Archive for Star Wales

Sêr Cymru

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on March 24, 2012 by telescoper

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.