In the last year, since taking over as Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales, I’ve spent time travelling across the country and learning more about the huge range of research and innovation that takes place in our universities and businesses. It’s a part of the Welsh economy with an unrivalled capacity to grow and generate inward investment, which is why research and innovation are so vital in helping us achieve the Welsh Government’s objectives for prosperity, security and wellbeing.
Wales’ growing research profile is characterised by several areas of excellence, international engagement and real-world impact. Recent ground-breaking developments in Wales span diverse fields – including biotechnology (such as the identification of diagnostic biomarkers for detecting early-stage lung cancer), energy (the patenting of microbial fuel cell technology), medicine (the development of treatment for neurodegenerative diseases) and opto-electronics (next-generation computer graphics based on ray tracing and photon mapping).
In terms of innovation, Wales outperforms the European average in terms of collaborating with SMEs, lifelong learning, scientific publications and sales of new-to-market innovations. In 2017, we were also ranked as the top “Strong Innovator” in the Regional Innovation Scoreboard. Wales has made impressive progress in leveraging our academic base and developing links with business. For example, Wales is indisputably an international leader in the field of compound semiconductors.
Cutting-edge innovation can be found in all parts of Wales. At Swansea University, there’s SPECIFIC – a centre developing building materials that can actually generate energy. This has gained significant international attention and funding. Cyber security is another area in which we have a large number of supply companies and academic institutions – notably Cardiff University and the University of South Wales – all working together. In North Wales there are exciting facilities such as the Deeside Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute and the new Menai Science Park operated by Bangor University, with plans for an advanced nuclear research facility. Here, the Welsh Government is funding two chairs at the Nuclear Futures Institute.
As a neuroscientist involved in setting up the first CUBRIC – Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre – I am really pleased to see how the centre has been transformed by a £44million investment, moving to a new purpose-built location. It is one the jewels in our life-sciences crown, alongside the MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics and the new Centre for Ageing and Dementia.
Within the UK, Wales is the most efficient nation at translating its funding into high-quality, high-impact research. Using field-weighted citation impact, which compares the number of citations received by a research publication to an expected average, Wales’ performance has risen over the past 16 years to such an extent that it’s now above the other UK nations, and ahead of Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland. Areas where Wales is doing particularly well include natural and medical sciences, engineering and technology.
So how is Wales achieving such success? One key factor is the increase in international collaboration. This type of “research without borders” supports cutting-edge R&D by providing access to infrastructure, expertise, data and population aggregation at a scale beyond the reach of one nation alone. The principles of excellence and competitiveness that underpin European collaboration have helped drive up the quality of research outputs and contribute to higher skills levels. Over the past 18 years, structural funds allocated by the Welsh Government to research and innovation have helped grow our international research base and facilitated greater international collaboration.
In a recent evaluation, nearly 70% of Wales’ academic publications were international – one of the highest rates of the UK nations – and these involved Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. Wales has seen collaborations with places such as the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, and Harvard and Berkeley Universities in the United States. This is not just a matter of partnership between higher-education institutions, but long-term relationships that involve many research organisations and charities.
The impact of Welsh research innovation can be seen in national and international policy, health and social care, science and engineering, creative industries, energy and environment, education, food and agriculture. Across these sectors and more, Wales is providing solutions to multidisciplinary problems that cross national boundaries in search of productive solutions.