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.