The View from MIT Is That UniWales Innovates as Well as the Best; Robert Llewellyn Jones Talks to Porth-Born Professor John R Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the Academic Commercialisation Agenda and Why He Believes the University of Wales Is Moving in the Right Direction in This Key Economic Area
Byline: Robert Llewellyn
YOU can, they say, take the boy out of Wales but you can never take Wales out of the boy. Professor John R Williams, embodies this aphorism.
The director of the GeoSpatial Data Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is back in the land of his fathers to explore avenues of collaboration and continue a dialogue started earlier this year with representatives of the University of Wales.
"I was fascinated by the changes that have gone on in Wales with regard to its universities," he said.
"Through the Prince of Wales Innovation Scholarships, I think Marc [Clement, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales] has pointed the university in a new direction which is very much about innovation.
"Obviously being from MIT we have a similar orientation which is about having an impact in society and our research is judged on that impact basis."
Meeting this challenge is the object of the University of Wales' strategy in areas like biotechnology and the coupling up of technology under the umbrella of innovation.
Prof Williams said: "I believe that this is the dawn of a new era here for the University of Wales, which is now in charge of its own destiny.
"I am surprised how little in public funding they get, so their income is not that heavily drawn from the public purse. That's one thing industry doesn't realise - the fact is they are paying their own way."
One company in Wales Prof Williams has worked closely with helps blind people move around by attaching GPS systems to their dogs. This, he said, is an example of people being helped by having such data available.
"There's a new era of collaboration dawning which can be easily done through video conferencing and Skype. We at MIT recognise the need to form partnerships beyond the US and since I'm Welsh one of the things I'd like to do is to bring Wales into that.
"There are examples in Wales of centres of excellence that are already world class, for example the Finite Element Group at Swansea University has achieved world renown."
He added: "There are examples where Wales can become a world leader in targeted areas and I believe this is what the University of Wales is doing."
MIT was founded in 1856 to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that would best serve the nation and the world.
It's here that he holds the chair of information engineering, civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems.
Prof Williams said: "The focus is on technology that impacts society and we are judged on the papers we produce and the impact arising from our work. I think it's the best engineering university in the world, though those at Harvard may disagree."
He added: "When I arrived there I was surprised to find that every professor has a company they run, while at the same time they are expected to do consulting to industry and this is not frowned on.
"MIT see it as keeping in touch with the problems facing society."
In this respect, he explains, the focus can quickly change and during his time there has been a reorientation from what may be called sunset technologies like the automobile to biotechnology and renewable energies.
"The institute encourages its students to set up companies," he said.
"In my class several undergraduate students have requested me to sign a non-disclosure agreement because they are going to reveal company secrets. "Many graduate students spin-out companies and that's what the University of Wales wants to do and they have a very good strategy to bring this about."
The underlying message here is that it's not bad for professors to be involved in industry and this, he believes, is now happening here. …