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Try harder on grants, Welsh universities urged

Higher Education Wales, representing Welsh universities, has said that Welsh institutions should improve success rates in securing research council grants in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths.

The statement, sent in an emailed response to Research Fortnight Today on 24 August, backs the goals set out in a proposed strategy for science in Wales presented to the Cabinet office by John Harries, the Welsh chief scientific advisor, on 5 July.

The strategy will be sent out for consultation over the summer and a final document published in the autumn.

The strategy warns that Wales has a lower success rate in winning competitive research council funds than the rest of the UK.

In particular, it argues, Wales need to improve its performance in the STEM areas.

Harries suggests that the government should pursue a “strategy based on the long term economic success of the nation being inextricably linked to a strong base in STEM”.

He proposes several measures that could raise the STEM profiles of the country’s universities, and says the institutions should adopt at least one of his recommendations.

One way forward, he says, would be an initiative similar to the Scottish research-pooling scheme, which forges collaborations between university departments in important subject areas.

Another suggestion is the establishment of an initiative similar to Germany’s public-private technology innovation centres, the Fraunhofer Institutes, on which the UK Technology Innovation Centres are modelled.

Other schemes cited as worthy of emulation include the Irish “research focus” scheme and the Max Planck Institutes.

To further boost the country’s performance in STEM subjects, it is important that researchers look for funding outside their borders, such as charities and the European Union framework programmes, Harries suggests.

The strategy also outlines priority research areas. Since Wales is a small country, it says, “we must be selective; focusing on a limited number of key priorities”.

The country should therefore concentrate on the “grand challenges” of life sciences and health; environment, energy and low carbon; and advanced engineering and materials, suggests the strategy.

The HEW has welcomed many of the suggestions in the strategy. “The draft science strategy raises a number of constructive suggestions to enhance Wales’ research performance. Professor Harries’ suggestion of further collaborative research work is a helpful one as the university sector is already pursuing a range of collaborative research centres.”

In an emailed response to Research Fortnight Today, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said, “The last Welsh Assembly Government showed significant foresight in appointing Prof Harries as its Chief Scientific Adviser—now the current one must give Harries’ strategy the political backing required for it to have an effect.

“There’s no way Wales can compete in the knowledge-based economy of tomorrow unless it tackles the science and engineering agenda head-on, today,” he said.

Khan also commented: “It’s clear that Wales receives less Research Council cash than you’d expect on a per capita basis, and I think it’s right to examine what Scotland’s done, as they’ve achieved the opposite effect—in part by having world-leading centres of excellence that can attract funding.”