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University research leads way for Wales

Think about the last time you went to the beach. Or tried to make your children eat more fruit and veg. Or turned on your heating. Or the last time you visited an elderly relative. What do these have in common?  All of these activities have in some way been influenced by research from universities in Wales. Welsh university research has an impact on everyone in Wales – but often we don’t realise it.

Take our coastline for example: this year, 33 beaches in Wales were awarded the prestigious ‘Blue Flag’. Welsh university research has made predicting water quality standards more accurate – right across Europe – leading to higher standards of health protection and more beaches being awarded the Blue Flag. From Pembrokeshire to Anglesey, Welsh university research has helped improve the quality of our bathing water – whether you’re a serious surfer or a weekend paddler.

Another example is public health: overweight and obese children represent a serious public health problem in Wales. In fact, the rates of childhood obesity in Wales are the highest in the UK. This causes a significant strain on the NHS, because they can cause life-threatening diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Countering this trend, Welsh university research is leading to major changes in children’s diet, increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetables by as much as 90%. The ‘Food Dudes’ programme encourages behavioural change in children, using four fictional characters who happily eat fruit and veg – “the source of special energy they need to defeat the sources of evil”.

The evidence of the impact of climate change on our world is now overwhelming, and Welsh universities are leaders in this field. Governments across the globe are working to reduce their carbon emissions, and become more energy efficient. Universities are tackling the challenges of climate change head on. Welsh university researchers have played a key role in the BBC’s Frozen Planet series, helping the public become better informed about climate change’s impact on the planet. Elsewhere, Welsh university research has led to the developments of new ‘smart’ metal coatings, which help to create low Carbon heating systems.

Taking our aging population as another example: by 2030, a quarter of the Welsh population will be 65 or over – higher than the UK average at 22%. Concerns are growing over the prevalence of elder abuse, right across the UK, and Welsh university research has highlighted the difficulties experienced in obtaining even basic human rights, such as justice and protection. Welsh university research is addressing this through law reform – towards providing protections for people of all ages. In fact, the research has already influenced the Care and Wellbeing (Wales) Bill, which includes powers for practitioners responding to cases of suspected abuse.

Universities in Wales are part of a world leading UK science base – second only to the United States for its share of global citations. Research at Wales’ universities has led to many ground-breaking discoveries, and developments that have helped to transform Welsh society and the economy. In research terms, particularly in life sciences, environmental protection, and materials research and testing, Wales has the potential to lead the world. An independent report by Elsevier on Welsh university research concluded that Wales’ use of research funding is highly productive and efficient – outranking most comparator countries of a similar size. The study found that in terms of productivity and efficiency, Wales performs above the UK average, and is one of the most efficient countries in the world. The report also showed that Wales’ is an increasingly attractive region for high quality researchers to relocate to.

Welsh universities are making a significant – and often silent – contribution to Welsh society. If you wish to find out more about this I am delighted to announce the launch of a new portal – www.researchwales.ac.uk – which presents some of our shining examples of our universities advancing the world around us.

Professor David Shepherd
Chair of the Research Network
Universities Wales
December 2014