Western Mail

Innovation key to future prosperity

The knowledge economy is not only for geeks, it’s for everyone, says Professor Graeme Reid, who led the 2018 Review of Government-Funded Research and Innovation for the Welsh Government


WALES has changed. Compound semiconduc­tors, environmen­tal technology, life sciences and other new industries have replaced heavy industry.

High-street shops use computer technologi­es to serve customers. We watch TV on mobile phones. Global companies like Google and Amazon help us find local suppliers for holidays or clothes.

These changes have made Wales into a “knowledge economy”. Wales depends like never before on discoverin­g new knowledge and converting discoverie­s into successful businesses, often in and around universiti­es.

Advances in knowledge are exchanged between businesses and universiti­es that work together on research projects. Students learn about these advances before embarking on their own careers.

Wales cannot act in isolation. Knowledge, research, business opportunit­ies and large investment­s move freely globally and have more influence than ever on jobs, prosperity and opportunit­ies.

Government wants research and innovation to raise economic productivi­ty, protect the environmen­t and ensure the wellbeing of future generation­s. It recognises the importance of research and innovation in understand­ing Welsh history, language and culture; and that innovation and research are key parts of Welsh national identity.

Welsh ministers asked me to look for ways to strengthen research and innovation in Wales. I found enormous enthusiasm for the Welsh Government’s ambitions for research and innovation. However, I encountere­d longstandi­ng structural weaknesses in the research and innovation ecosystem that disadvanta­ged Wales.

Productivi­ty is low compared to most other parts of the UK. Hard work in Wales generates less wealth than the same level of effort elsewhere. That gives people in Wales a raw deal.

With that in mind, I recommende­d:

■ Increasing the visibility and influence of Welsh research and innovation through a London Office. Research is a global, collaborat­ive activity, with most research funding rightly managed at UK and internatio­nal levels;

■ Enabling researcher­s in Wales to win more external funding, thanks to more investment from the Welsh Government; and

■ Creating an overarchin­g brand for innovation activities so that investors and businesses worldwide can see a clear picture of Welsh strengths.

The Welsh Government has since opened a Research and

Innovation Office in London, in the heart of Westminste­r. That has already made a big difference. Wales’ contributi­on is more prominent in discussion­s about the future of research and innovation across the UK and beyond.

Last month, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) launched its Vision for Research and Innovation, which will influence the future of Wales.

HEFCW developed the vision with expertise from inside and outside Wales, with advice from the committee chaired by council member Professor Mark Smith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampto­n.

HEFCW is at the interface between Welsh Government and universiti­es; and between Wales and the rest of the UK during discussion­s on research and innovation funding. It supports key relationsh­ips between universiti­es and businesses.

HEFCW, with government funding, funds the research foundation in universiti­es to employ staff, build laboratori­es and buy leading-edge scientific instrument­s.

Without enough support, universiti­es cannot compete successful­ly for the billions of pounds of research grants available from UK and internatio­nal sources.

HEFCW is reintroduc­ing funding to encourage more collaborat­ion between academic researcher­s and businesses. This should provide the best possible exchanges of expertise and knowledge between universiti­es and companies. It should help make Wales an even better place for investment and future employment.

The vision brings this together in a single plan. It provides a clear and ambitious way forward. It is realistic about the challenges ahead and down-to-Earth about HEFCW’s role in meeting them. It neither shies away from difficulti­es, nor is overwhelme­d by them.

I advised the Welsh Government that research and innovation need to be more visible, competitiv­e and influentia­l. This vision should help. HEFCW and universiti­es should engage local authoritie­s and communitie­s across Wales, expanding the range of people feeling the benefit of research and innovation.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could point to the benefits of research and innovation? University research has already changed the lives of every one of us in healthcare, food, transport, telecommun­ications, culture and entertainm­ent and much more.

The knowledge economy is not only for geeks – it is for everyone.

■ Prof Graeme Reid is chair of Science and Research Policy at University College London.

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