The Welsh government must create incentives for researchers to secure competitive external funding, or it risks jeopardising science and innovation in its universities after Brexit, according to a major review.
Having previously benefited significantly from grants guaranteed by the European Union, Wales stands to lose out heavily when the UK departs the bloc – and potentially loses access to Brussels research funding – next year.
But while the Welsh government has “scant” financial resources to continue the same level of support for researchers on its own, there is a solution, suggests Graeme Reid, a professor of science and research policy at UCL.
In the Review of Government Funded Research and Innovation in Wales, commissioned by the Welsh government, Professor Reid says that the country’s “historic dependence on EU funding” could be substituted and the research funding pot even expanded if universities engage more successfully in UK-wide funding competitions, and attract higher levels of business investment.
The government should therefore “introduce a powerful, performance-related incentive and reward system, based on winning competitively awarded research and innovation funding from outside Wales”, he states. “If Wales does not win this money in competitions, it will go elsewhere in the UK.”
Government ministers have expressed concerns in recent years that research and development investment in Wales remains disproportionately low, at 1.2 per cent of the nation’s economic output, compared with 1.7 per cent in Scotland and 2 per cent in England.
In his 2016 review of higher education funding in Wales, Sir Ian Diamond, principal of the University of Aberdeen, made proposals to protect quality-related research funding at £71 million a year. Professor Reid says that he agrees with the recommendations, but that unforeseen events have since moved the requirements forward and hence budgets for research needed to be expanded upon.
A new “Future of Wales” top-up fund should be created, he suggests, with a yearly budget of £30 million allocated to universities in direct proportion to the external UK competitive funding secured.
“Wales will lose EU money, but the UKRI [UK Research and Innovation] budget is increasing – and there’s no upper or lower limit of what Wales can have out of that,” Professor Reid told Times Higher Education. “Ultimately, it’s up to the government to encourage researchers to compete for external funds so that the majority of Welsh money can be prioritised for the projects nobody else can provide financial support for.
“Researchers will not necessarily have to put in more effort to secure competitive funding, but it’s a different kind of workload, and there will need to be an extra financial reward for doing that.”
Further recommendations include a proposal for the government to increase the international visibility and influence of Welsh research by opening a new London office; the Welsh government currently has one in Brussels, but no representation in the UK capital, Professor Reid notes.
Julie Lydon, chair of Universities Wales and vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales, said that it was “crucial” that Wales moved “to take forward these recommendations”.
Julie James, leader of the House in the Welsh Assembly, said that the government welcomed the recommendations and had accepted them “in principle”.
“We do acknowledge…that, working across sectors, we can do more to increase the visibility and influence of Welsh research,” Ms James said.