What next for research and innovation in Wales?

I had the pleasure of attending the excellent UKRI launch in London last week.

There were lots of positive noises from ministers about the value of university research and innovation to the UK, and it was well attended by the great and the good from across the world of HE, research, and innovation.

Now back in Cardiff, I have been thinking about what this new and exciting body means for Wales. UKRI is certainly going to be making some big decisions that will affect the whole of the UK, and that we hope will benefit every part too. We know that research is a key part of a growing economy, with public funding for research having been proven to provide high returns and shown to encourage greater investment in R&D from the private sector. Of course, plenty of work on some of the big centrepieces of the industrial strategy began before UKRI’s official start on 1 April, for example through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). There appear to be many exciting opportunities but it is all happening pretty quickly.

Is Wales ready?

First, the potential is there. If the ambition of UKRI is to respond to global economic, environmental and social challenges by pushing the frontiers of new knowledge and then putting this to use, Welsh universities are ready and able to meet this ambition.  Universities in Wales are particularly good at ensuring their research benefits our economy and society. They had the highest percentage of “world-leading” research in terms of its impact of any part of the UK in the last Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise, with almost half of it considered to be having a transformational effect on society and the economy. Furthermore, universities in Wales play a much greater role in the Welsh economy than English universities do in their regions. They account for 84% of all the published research conducted in Wales (which has grown at a rate that outpaces the world and UK averages) and 43% of Wales’ R&D expenditure, as compared to 25% from universities for the UK as a whole.  

Here in Wales, we are expectantly waiting for the publication of the Reid review of Welsh Government-funded research and innovation, which we believe will have implications on the Welsh research base’s readiness to engage with UKRI. Already trailed in the Welsh Government’s technical consultation on its proposed reforms to the regulation and oversight of post-16 education in Wales, we understand from Professor Reid’s recent presentation at the Policy Forum for Wales event on the future of research in Wales, that one of his recommendations is that the Welsh government should seek greater influence over UK research policy. He recommends that a Welsh research and innovation office should be created in London, to “get under the skin of decision making” and “bring a Welsh perspective to the heart of early-stage thinking”. Universities in Wales are keen to work with Welsh Government and HEFCW to move this forward and to ensure we are at the heart of things.

Enter RIW – Research and Innovation Wales

However, this is a short-term action, and there are longer-term changes afoot in Wales that will be key to Wales’ ability to play a role in UKRI’s ambitions.

The Welsh Government is proposing to reform the regulation and oversight of post-16 education in Wales. Unlike England, where HEFCE has been split into the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England (now part of UKRI), the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Education has said “whilst a clear separation between teaching and research is now  fundamental to England’s policy and funding structures, we will maintain the benefits of national and institutional links between research, innovation, and teaching.” As such, the Welsh Government is proposing the creation of Research and Innovation Wales (RIW) – a statutory committee within the new tertiary education and research Commission, with governance arrangements that are intended to give a level of independence to it while remaining an integral part of the Commission.

For Wales to be a part of, and benefit from, UKRI’s new strategy, these are the top three requirements universities are looking for in the new governance proposals for research and innovation in Wales:

  1. RIW must be flexible and agile enough to interact with new external bodies and funding streams e.g. UKRI. This agility should not just enable rapid reactions but should include early and proactive engagement with UK strategy to ensure it reflects the interests, strengths, and needs of Wales.
  2. After Brexit, replacement funds for research and innovation will be a key priority for Welsh universities. Much of their existing innovation activity has been funded through European Structural Funds (ESF) and the UK Government’s replacement fund – both amount and distribution model – is yet to be confirmed. RIW must be ready to position Wales’ research base in the best possible position in what will be a very fast-paced and highly competitive future.
  3. Research England will administer QR funding in England, which is one of the elements of the dual support system that UKRI has recognised as being “vitally important in providing underpinning funding for our world-leading universities to invest in the excellence and impact of their research and ensure the financial sustainability of our research base” in their new Strategic Prospectus. To remain competitive and successful, Welsh universities will need to work in partnership with researchers and innovators from across the UK and overseas. For these reasons, Wales must remain part of a UK-wide research and innovation system.

 

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