Social science is this year’s theme for research parks, proclaimed an article published in Times Higher Education in January 2013.
That forecast may have proved a bit premature. But it is perhaps significant that the prediction was made by Adam Price, a public innovation lead for Wales at the innovation charity Nesta and a former Plaid Cymru MP.
For it is Wales that is at last leading the way, with Cardiff University announcing plans to build what it calls the world’s first social science research park as part of a £300 million regeneration of a former industrial site in the city’s Cathays area.
The image conjured up by the phrase “science park” – biotech companies set in rolling parkland, perhaps – may need to be adjusted slightly. But the principles are much the same, with Cardiff looking to attract research groups from industry and policy organisations to work alongside researchers drawn from across the university’s three colleges.
“All the evidence from around the world shows that, if you create clusters – ‘serendipity spaces’ where people are interacting and using the same facilities – that’s what promotes innovation and the creation of new ideas, and ultimately new products and policies,” said Colin Riordan, Cardiff’s vice-chancellor.
“You don’t just integrate them in a physical space, but by doing that you create the opportunity for a new way of working,” he added.
One field in which the research park may prove its worth, Professor Riordan believes, is in the development of new energy extraction methods, such as fracking. While it is all very well creating technology to extract, store and distribute previously inaccessible energy reserves, it will be of limited use if both public acceptance and the appropriate policy framework are lacking.
“We want to have social scientists involved from the start so that the social, cultural and economic implications of the innovative processes are understood and are part of the research and innovation process,” said Professor Riordan.
Other topics that may be a focus for collaborative research include healthcare and violence prevention.
The university has acknowledged that the centre, which could be completed in 2017 if the business case is approved by the university council, was inspired in part by Mr Price’s prediction.
Alongside the social science research park, the university plans to build an innovation centre offering flexible space to spin-off companies, staff and graduate entrepreneurs and local start-ups, as well as a translational research facility focused on finding practical applications for academic research. The new site would also be home to a research institute for compound semiconductor technology.
Innovation and the practical application of new ideas will be vital for the Welsh economy as it continues its transition away from heavy industry, Professor Riordan argued.
“We want to put Cardiff University at the heart of regenerating economies in Wales and making the knowledge economy a reality in Wales,” he said. “That is what is going to take us to future prosperity, health and well-being in this country.”
However, it is not just about new buildings. The Cardiff Innovation System (as named by Professor Riordan) will also host an innovators-in-residence programme and support the development of enterprise education and opportunities for students.
This unremitting focus on innovation and enterprise may not be to the taste of those who prefer universities to concentrate on the discovery of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
But Professor Riordan emphasised that economic growth is not the only goal; the ultimate aim is to make Cardiff and Wales more attractive places to live and work. He noted that the city’s cultural scene, which includes the BBC, the Welsh National Opera, dramatists and film-makers, offers opportunities for collaborative innovation.
In addition, the university last month announced five flagship engagement projects focusing on issues such as health and well-being in some of Cardiff’s most deprived neighbourhoods, and on the development of hyperlocal news websites for areas with little mainstream media coverage.
One of the five projects will operate in Namibia in conjunction with the Welsh government’s Wales for Africa programme. Its goals include improving training for medical staff and boosting students’ maths skills.
Of the many projects being launched by Cardiff, Professor Riordan observed: “What they have in common is working in partnership with people and finding ways to deploy our expertise and resources to help communities improve their position and achieve their own goals.”
£300m will be invested in regenerating a former industrial site in the Cathays area of Cardiff
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