Welsh universities must target top academics - advisor

Prof John Harries says Welsh universities are missing out on millions of pounds in research funding.

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Welsh universities are being urged to be "predatory" in attracting star academics to boost research funding.

The call comes from the Welsh Government's chief scientific adviser, who is concerned about Wales' performance in attracting research income.

Prof John Harries wants institutions to be more "streetwise" when bidding for a share of UK Government funding.

He said they should target "star" research teams from elsewhere.

In his new strategic agenda for science in Wales, Prof Harries says attracting research income was a way in which higher education could boost the economy.

"Universities in Wales need to target 'star' research teams complementary to their areas of research strength and, by this predatory approach, signal to the world outside Wales that we are determined to make a success of our commitment to the science base in underpinning economic growth," he said.

Analysis

Tomos Livingstone, BBC Wales political correspondent

Welsh universities are competing in a very well-established, competitive market.

The UK government handed out £1.58bn in research funding last year but only £53m of that came to Wales. That's about 3.3%.

Normally Wales gets around 5% in other areas of public spending, so some people are arguing that the usual formula that gets applied to public spending in Wales should be applied in terms of research funding as well.

Oxford, Cambridge and the London universities get the lion's share of this research finding, but even if you take them out of the equation Wales still doesn't quite get up to that 5% mark of what's left.

There are some excellent examples of scientific research going on around Wales. There's the Institute of Life Science in Swansea; Neuroscience in Cardiff has got a very good reputation. But what everyone agrees is that we need a few more examples like that.

Prof Harries identified cutting edge research areas in Welsh universities, such as neuroscience in Cardiff and the work done at the Institute of Life Sciences in Swansea.

Complacency

He called for a greater focus on three "grand challenge" areas - life sciences and health, environment energy and low carbon, and advanced engineering and materials.

But he warned that there may be a degree of complacency amongst some Welsh universities in winning bids for funding due to the existence of other less routes like EU structural funds.

Each year, Welsh universities bid for research funding against other UK institutions.

But in recent years, they have only secured around three per cent of the total - well below the normal share of overall public funding allocated to Wales.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews strongly welcomed Prof Harries' proposals.

"We've seen now over the past decade that the higher education institutions in Wales are simply not attracting the amount of research funding that we would expect," he said.

Start Quote

No one is going to fund research just to be nice to a particular nation or particular region ”

End Quote Leighton Andrews Education Minister

"In order to change that, we have got to see a shake up, which is what our Higher Education Strategy is about.

Level of funding

"No one is going to fund research just to be nice to a particular nation or particular region - we have got to ensure that the quality of the bids is sufficient to attract the research funding that we deserve."

Chairman of Higher Education Wales, John Hughes, who is also the vice-chancellor of Bangor University, said the chief scientific adviser was right to voice concerns about the level of research funding.

Attracting research income was dependent on having the best people in place to carry out that work, he said.

"There's no doubt, as the figures show, that we do under perform when it comes to attracting Research Council income - it's very competitive in the UK," said Mr Hughes.

"Part of the reason, of course, is that there are too many small universities in Wales and the recent proposals from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales might address that to some extent.

"But I also think there needs to be a lot more investment and there needs to be a great deal more pooling of research among the research-oriented universities."

Prof Gareth Morgan, head of Swansea University's College of Medicine who runs a commercial company born out of research from the Institute of Life Science, agreed.

"The figures speak for themselves," he said. "Only 3% of research council funding in the UK comes to Wales and Wales should have a higher proportion than that. The current results need to be improved."

Prof Morgan said that in the last few years Wales had moved significantly to develop networks, particularly in the field of medicine.

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