What’s in the Welsh government’s draft innovation strategy

Ed Bridges reads over the Welsh Government's draft innovation strategy and has some suggestions for improvements

Ed Bridges is Public Affairs and Civic Mission Manager at Cardiff University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

It’s no secret that funding for innovation in Wales look precarious.

As a country we are reliant on EU funds, in particular EU structural funding, without a long-term guarantee from the UK government that this funding will be replaced.

Even where some positive noises have been made there is significant disquiet that this will come with significant strings attached. Some commentators have gone as far to suggest this is tantamount to rolling back some of the momentum around devolution.

Out of the EU

Welsh universities have received roughly £570m from European structural funds since the turn of the millennium. This is a hugely significant amount for Wales’s innovation ecosystem. Funding from the UK centrally is not sufficiently geographically sensitive which results in Wales only receiving 2 per cent of total UK R&D funding. Wales is per capita the largest recipient of the two main form of EU structural funds in the UK. If a post-Brexit world involves a competitive bidding process, it is likely Welsh universities would be at a disadvantage owing to historic underfunding of their work.

This strategy also emerges amidst a changing wider UK landscape. The recent Grant review of UKRI is sceptical of more voices into what is an emergent and complex organisation – and notably refuses to address UKRI’s underfunding of research in Wales and Northern Ireland spend. Not only should there be better representation of the devolved nations within UKRI, but in the interests of ‘levelling-up’ there is also a strong argument to Barnettise research spending.

Elsewhere, the Nurse review into the wider research eco-system is also not yet published. Being adrift of EU funds is a step into the dark but expectedly the Tickell review did not recommend more layers of governance to account especially for Wales. The risk is that Welsh innovation ends up adrift from the EU and not sufficiently devolved from the UK. If there is neither influence, funds, nor power to shape its own destiny Welsh innovation will end up in a “worst of all worlds” scenario.

Innovation Strategy

It is in this context from which the draft innovation strategy for Wales emerges. Richard Wyn Jones has written before about the Reid review which examined the Welsh research and innovation landscape, yet Reid is not mentioned once – and readers may well ask why not. Reid’s was a proper strategy which sought to outline a structure that would generate a set of incentives to change behaviour in ways that could address the problems that it had identified. In contrast, the new strategy is devoid of, well, strategy. It contains many platitudes but with no mechanisms that might actually have an impact.

The central problem for innovation in Wales is a lack of resources to achieve the Welsh government’s ambition. Across 99 pages it makes the case that there are ways to promote a vibrant, innovation, and even more socially just Wales, but growing the research base and attracting new partners will require more cash.

The strategy could not be more explicit in setting out what a barrier the uncertain funding landscape will be to the future of innovation in Wales. The document makes a good fist of stressing that the bulk of innovation funding will have to come from UK government, and that Welsh government will seek to facilitate it. Such assistance is important, and Wales needs all the friends it can get in those discussions. But it is hard to reconcile the admission that UK government holds most of the purse strings with a strategy which also sets out a shopping list of areas where the Welsh government hopes to see innovation.

The strategy expects to see progress in new measures of value in RD&I, increased value for money from research and innovation, and improved deployment of research from the HE sector on Welsh government priorities. It sets out at some length the different policy areas where it encourages innovation in support of the seven goals of the Future Generations Act. But with much-diminished funding opportunities at the Welsh government’s disposal, and without being able to marry up Welsh and UK government priorities, it is hard to see where this leads. Effectively, the Welsh government is seeking to attach more strings to a much smaller pot of money.

So what?

Instead, what we are left with is a classic “something and nothing” document. Rich on detail of what Welsh government thinks it has done well, light on reflection about what hasn’t worked. Verbose on the many areas where it wants to see progress, sparse on how exactly it will incentivise action. Honest about the need for it to work hand-in-glove with UK government to boost Welsh innovation, but frustratingly quiet on how the two governments’ different (sometimes competing) priorities can be reconciled.

For the researchers and innovators trapped in the middle of it all, it runs the risk of being an opportunity missed.

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