Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Sêr Cymru – A new science strategy for Wales

Earlier this week, the Chief Scientific Adviser Prof. John Harries, First Minister Carwyn Jones and Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) unveiled a new strategy for science in Wales that supersedes the previous "Science Policy for Wales" from 2006.

At the heart of the new strategy - available here - is the creation of the £50million Sêr Cymru (Stars Wales) scheme that aims to:

  • Attract "star" academics to Wales to carry out research projects
  • Create pan-university and pan-discipline "National Research Networks"
  • Concentration on three "Grand Challenge" disciplines : life sciences, low-carbon technologies and advanced materials science & manufacturing.
  • A "high profile Welsh Graduate School" in every discipline with "applications open to all nationalities".
  • An annual prize event for science and distinguished lecture series.

The new strategy's findings also show, more negatively:

  • 49% of Welsh university science research projects are rated 4-star or 3-star (the two highest ratings), slightly behind Scotland (51%) and England (56%). Though citation rates (Welsh research/academics being cited) are above the UK average.
  • Wales's percentage share of UK-wide Research Council funding was 3.3%, compared to Scotland's 14.8%.
  • Welsh businesses spend only 1.5% of the UK total on research and development (£244m).
  • Standards in science and maths at age 15 are "not as good as they should be" and "require attention", but standards in science are generally at the OECD average.

There's lots of interesting stuff to ponder and, as I've mentioned in previous blogs, innovation and science are going to be crucial to facing up to the challenges of the future.  Secton 5 of the strategy does say that the talent pool in STEM subjects needs to increase, as well as the uptake of STEM subjects at and beyond GCSE level. I've posted before on possible practical steps that could be taken to broaden science's appeal.

In a separate, but related development, a new £100million Welsh Life Sciences Fund public-private scheme to support life sciences in Wales has been unveiled at the BioWales 2012 conference in Cardiff this week.

If there's one thing I would be critical about, it's that despite the name "Sêr Cymru", there doesn't seem to be that much emphasis on home-grown talent. For every ready-made expert brought in from elsewhere, there should be one from Wales, mentored, to make sure that there's a sustainable flow of talent down the line. After all, Wales is still a long way from being able to compete with universities like MIT or Oxbridge for talented post-graduates.

It goes without saying that I welcome this 100%. I'd even go as far as to say this is the most positive announcement from the Welsh Government so far this Assembly term. I'm pleased. Credit where it's due.


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