Research and innovation, the Welsh way

The long-awaited Reid Review of government funded research and innovation in Wales – released yesterday – is primarily focused on capturing a bigger slice of the UKRI funding pie for Wales.

With the birth of UKRI and the long, slow, machinations of Brexit – the top-to-toe reappraisal of government support for higher education and research brought on by Diamond and Hazelkorn offers the perfect opportunity to make a new start in “selling” Wales as a source of expertise, an engine of innovation, and a destination for public and private inward investment. A generation of politicians have talked about the potential in Wales – this report offers three simple recommendations to make things happen.

How to write a report that gets listened to

Speaking to Graeme Reid I was most powerfully struck by his experience. A long career in academia and the civil service has seen him involved in many ways with a variety of government reports – here is someone who knows how to write a recommendation that gets accepted. The general chorus of welcome from the Welsh research establishment suggests that his investment in conversations with those involved in research and innovation up and down the country have been blended into a report that feels actionable and vital.

His first recommendation is one of those that feels so obvious it seems impossible it has not been done before – a new Welsh Research and Innovation London Office (WRILO). Reid told me that “difference between Wales and Scotland is stark and the remedy looks straightforward”. With a little effort Wales could and should have a permanent presence in the UK capital – enmeshing itself into policymaking in the same way as parallel satellite offices from Scotland do. It would be a shop window for Welsh HE – and as shop windows do it would drive interest and eventually spending.

The second proposal plays into an existing Diamond recommendation – protecting quality-linked research (QR) funding, and upping support for postgraduate scholarships and the Learned Society of Wales. It’s been welcomed by Universities Wales, NCUB and HEFCW – as the former says “it is crucial we move to take forward these recommendations on such areas as quality research funding and the delivery of the full package of student and higher education funding proposed previously by Sir Ian Diamond “.

Again, it feels obvious – in a good way – that a sector facing serious uncertainty largely not of local origin needs stability in investment. Diamond as a package is widely seen to make a lot of sense – though by Reid’s own admission “it is lazy for the author of a government review simply to say that we need more money” in this case we are talking largely about money that is already allocated.

A grand narrative for modern Wales

Reid argues that recommendation three is the heart of the report – tying in to the other two proposals as an overarching narrative. And it is precisely that – an overarching narrative – that is missing from Welsh support for innovation. He told me:

“There is a lot of exciting innovation activity across Wales, but it is not strategically linked together. We need a productivity plan and central agenda to inform all Welsh Government innovation activity. This should be pragmatic – not a Soviet-style central management structure – perhaps a little like the way the UK Industrial Strategy scaffolds activity in a range of sectors and a range of levels, but with more connection between the strategy and activity.”

Drawing existing and new work together into the “St David’s Fund” would enable government, universities and industry to tell a coherent and consistent story around what is happening across the country. But Reid is clear that in most cases (he offers an exception for investment in sparse, rural, areas) that the government should not be the primary funder of innovation – rather that the ability to attract other investment should be a key criteria in the allocation of state innovation funding.

Power in Wales

The response from the Welsh Government has been very positive, accepting all the recommendations in principle, and proposing to immediately take forward the recommendation on a dedicated London presence. Of course, the eternal pressures on funding and attention mean that such an immediate response is not possible for the other two recommendations, but a welcome for the “direction of travel” is perhaps the best that can be hoped for.

Graeme Reid gave an example of the way strategic support for innovation can drive exciting developments. The proposed construction of a new nuclear power station on Anglesey could be seen as a transactional matter between UK Government and Hitachi. But a little more planning and consideration could see the development of substantial expertise in modern nuclear engineering around the Menai Strait – a new industrial base and a new Welsh industrial power.

Again, English policy wonks will look with some envy at the thought and pragmatism that goes into Welsh HE policy making. The Reid Review sits happily alongside Diamond and Hazelkorn as evidence of a devolved nation that is making policy to support the economic, social and cultural benefits of higher education with refreshing clarity and elegance.

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