Western Mail Profiles: Working together to improve science and innovation in Wales

Over the course of the last year, Health Wales has been highlighting the work being done by the first group of Welsh Crucible researchers. At the end of the first programme, Dr Sara Williams and Professor Peter Halligan explain why it’s important researchers form different backgrounds work together

The launch of the new science strategy for Wales earlier this month emphasised the vital role Welsh science plays in ensuring the nation’s future economic success.

It also raised awareness of some of the world-class research currently taking place in our universities.

Over the last eight months, the Western Mail has featured 30 articles highlighting the range and diversity of the work of some of Wales’ up-and-coming researchers.

The Welsh Crucible series has showcased the exciting research being done in Wales to make us healthier and safer, our environment cleaner, our lives richer, and our economy stronger.

Last summer, the St David’s Day Group of research universities in Wales – Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Glamorgan and Swansea – set up the Welsh Crucible as a way of exploiting our rich institutional talents, bringing together 30 research stars to look at different ways of solving problems that society currently faces.

As the articles have shown, their research covers a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, social science, chemistry, computer science, and English literature.

It is generally rare for researchers to get the chance to meet such a range of colleagues from so many different subject backgrounds. Universities are generally structured in line with the subjects they teach, which means that research typically takes place within traditional subject areas and most researchers build their careers by specialising within these.

While this is important and appropriate for making advances within disciplines, there is lots of evidence that working collaboratively across disciplines improves research outcomes, combining, as it does, complementary skills, knowledge, and approaches .

But the big challenges we face as a society don’t sit neatly within any one specific subject and it is generally now accepted that to solve them, we need researchers from different disciplines to work together.

Some of the biggest strides made recently in research have come about as a result of groups of researchers from different disciplines working together. These include the discovery of the structure of DNA and the human genome sequencing project.

Multi-disciplinary teams across the world are currently tackling the challenges posed by climate change, child poverty, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and the recent outbreak of SARS.

Universities and researchers are increasingly looking for ways to work together to solve common problems and the funders of research encourage this by granting funding in thematic areas that cross subject areas.

This is something recognised in the new Science for Wales strategy, which has identified three research themes that cut across disciplines – life sciences and health, low carbon, energy and environment, and advanced engineering and materials.

So what has come from the Welsh Crucible initiative? One of most important results is the development of a strong network of confident, outward-looking researchers with expertise in different areas.

Exciting research collaborations have already begun to emerge from this network and will be featured in future editions of the Western Mail.

One collaboration between social science and computer science is looking at how we can use a combination of mobile phone technology and weight-watching groups to tackle obesity problems in Wales.

Another is looking into the feasibility of developing a smart pill that will send information to doctors about a patient’s digestive system.

Making the most of our 750 miles of coastline, other researchers in the Welsh Crucible network are looking at developing new methods for harvesting energy from the sea, and the development of software that will allow us to model the effects that climate change may have on our seas.

The success of the first Welsh Crucible in 2011 has prompted the St David’s Day Group to fund this year’s second round. This allows Welsh Crucible to bring together a further 30 of Wales’ future research stars from universities and industry to look at how they can work together to improve science and grow innovation in Wales.

Dr Sara Williams is the Welsh Crucible Programme Manager and Professor Peter Halligan is Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies at Cardiff University.  For more information about the Welsh Crucible email welshcrucible@cf.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 2nd April 2012 as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.