Exploiting Our Innovative Ideas; Andrew Beale, Director of IP Wales, Talks to Robert Llewellyn Jones about How Wales' Performance in Terms of Commercialising Intellectual Property and Research in Its Colleges and Universities

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The Welsh Assembly Government's vision for a new knowledge-rich economy has been clearly set out.

In a post-devolution Wales, decision makers claim that intellectual property (IP) will be at the heart of the economy underpinned by a research-base - driven by Welsh universities.

This has prompted a call for a closer working relationship between the Welsh Assembly Government and the international IP community, says Andrew Beale, director of IP Wales - the body tasked with promoting intellectual property in the economy.

While the UK may perform well in comparison with other European economies, Dr Beale said the performance of its regions and nations ranges from 12th (South-East) to 113th (Northern Ireland).

Wales is ranked 89th out of 203 - nine places below Scotland.

Compared to counterparts in Australia, Canada and USA the performance of UK universities is 'good and improving', with a clear correlation between large research incomes from research funding/grants and the strongest commercialisation performance.

Mr Beale said: "But research conducted by IP Wales paints a somewhat less dynamic picture for regional universities.

"This work formed the basis of a recent comparative analysis of patenting activity by universities serving the three recently devolved countries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland," He added: "While patent filings, per researcher, in Wales maybe on a par with that of Scotland (and double the rate of Northern Ireland), our academic research base is only around half that of Scotland in per capita terms and is currently dominated by the performance of a single university [Cardiff]." Mr Beale believes the research base is too weak and fragmented to successfully drive a knowledge economy.

Cardiff University stands as Wales' sole representative within the self-selecting 'Russell Group' of leading UK research universities, so the dramatic drop in its Times Higher UK research ranking from 8th in 2001 to equal 22nd in 2008 is at best discouraging.

Even this performance was only made achievable by failing to submit for scrutiny a third of eligible research staff, resulting in the lowest percentage submission for the top 30 UK universities.

Mr Beale said: "The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008 reveals a massive Welsh deficit when compared with Scotland in terms of world-class science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research.

"Wales has under 120 researchers operating in this field at the highest level, with the majority being based at Cardiff and Swansea Universities." In its consultation on a 'Science Policy for Wales' conducted in the first quarter of 2006, the Welsh Assembly Government proposed that a science policy focused on innovation should concentrate on the areas of health, low-carbon energy and enabling sustained social and economic renewal..

The responses largely agreed, but many advocated a need for greater coverage.

In its new approach to economic development the Ministerial Advisory Group chaired by Richard Parry-Jones identified 14 key sectors for Wales - three of which are deemed core enabling sectors - energy, environmental management, telecommunications and information communications.

Mr Beale said: "The move towards this sector approach is significant because the use of IP varies substantially between sectors.

"For example ICT requires a rapid transfer of know-how, technical knowledge not found in a patent, into its products, while creative industries look for the transfer of skilled people into multidisciplinary teams, and life sciences and the pharmaceutical sector demand strong IP protection." These selected sectors, he believes, are not reflective of our universities' traditional areas of patent strength.

"Welsh universities showed particular strength in the fields of chemical and physical analysis and microbe testing," said Mr Beale. …