The Case for Growing STEMM Research Capacity in Wales

Louise Bright, Peter Halligan

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    In the early 1990s, concerns were raised about the performance of the Welsh research base when compared with that of other UK countries. Underlying these concerns was Wales’s relatively poor showing in the early research assessment exercises (RAE) and its low capture of competitive UK research council (RC) funding. The Welsh Office and newly formed Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) placed particular emphasis on securing a greater proportion of the UK’s highly competitive RC funding, and on improving the quality of research carried out by the higher education sector. With this in mind, HEFCW and subsequently the new Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) adopted 5% (based on standard population share) of the UK’s total RC income as one of the sector’s stretching research targets and key indicators of Welsh sector performance. To increase RC income and overcome the perceived fragmentation of research efforts in Wales through better coordination and cooperation, WAG adopted a series of strategies directed at supporting research management and greater collaboration between institutions.

    Improving RC grant capture became a key target for the Welsh Government and HEFCW during the first decade of devolution. The expectation was that increased research collaboration, better research management and strategic research leadership would help grow Wales’s standard share of this competitive funding. Achieving this population share of RC income was also seen as an important step in stimulating economic growth. This paper provides a selective, historical overview of the main reasons why, despite a range of initiatives over the past 20 years, this income target was never achieved. We argue that Welsh universities secured proportionally less research income from the high-spending science and medical research councils, in large part due to the historical shortfall of academic science and medical researchers working in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) in Wales. What would it take for Wales’s standard share of total RC income to increase to 5%?

    The paper provides a current estimate of the STEMM staff shortfall in Wales. Compared with its standard academic population share, Welsh universities in 2012/13 show a collective research staff shortfall of some 0.5%, whereas Scotland has over 2.4% more than its standard share. Most of this staff deficit of 600 for Wales involved STEMM-related disciplines with the largest subject staff deficits being in clinical medicine, biosciences, physics, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical, engineering, and maths. We also show how reliance on Wales’s UK share contributed to a misleading and reputationally damaging perception of the Welsh research performance. When one employs established bibliometric output measures of research productivity and citation impact, it is clear that the quality of Wales’s research performance has improved significantly over the past decade when compared to similar-sized countries. Recognising the need to address the STEMM capacity deficit, the Welsh Government launched the Sêr Cymru initiative in 2012, which contributed £50m towards building a stronger science base in Wales capable of supporting economic and national development. While welcome, further investment will be required if the critical mass required to build sufficient capacity to win greater and sustained competitive funding is to be achieved. Although all Welsh universities engage in research, only a small number have the research capability to grow their science base significantly. Building on the 2012 Sêr Cymru initiative, the current chief scientific adviser for Wales is leading initiatives focused on building STEMM staff capacity. Ensuring that Wales has the future research capacity to win greater competitive (including RC) funding will require strong leadership and a long-term strategy that manages to balance sustainable research capacity with high-quality teaching provision.

    In this paper, it has not been possible to cover all aspects of this story, including the political challenges surrounding the sector reconfiguration in Wales2. However, it will (we hope) stimulate discussion and reflection for those charged with managing and leading large sectoral and institutional change. In particular, we hope it highlights the need to ensure sufficient research capacity before committing to outcome targets.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalLeadership Foundation for Higher Education Report
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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