Contemplating the role of physics in the Welsh economy

Image: Kate Stuart photography
Image: Kate Stuart photography

I have read and absorbed the findings of the IOP report on the role of physics in supporting economic growth and productivity in Wales, and I’d like to share with you three of my ponderings.

First, there’s what I’d like to call the “4 pi view”: what you might call a 360 degree view of the economy landscape, but we are physicists and there are a lot of interconnected variables – so more than two dimensions.

Secondly, again, as scientists, we physicists aren’t only concerned with measurement, but also with measuring the method of measurement. And my thoughts go to the report itself, how we use it, and what we might look for in the next one.

Finally, my third musing concerns the role and value of physics leadership in the innovation economy and in supporting internationally competitive, high-value manufacturing and technological services.

OK, back to point one, the 4 pi view. So, what are the variables?

  • The report concerns itself with a short period of time: 2011–13 (with some additional details for 2014–15), so it is natural to consider the time variable – how significant the physics roles was previously and how it might change (how we might want it to change) in the future. I will take this question further under point two
  • Another natural consideration is how Wales compares with the rest of the United Kingdom, and indeed this report is one of a set covering all the nations of the United Kingdom. To some extent, the reports touch on natural resources, but really only in the context of North Sea oil and gas, and Scotland, but we should turn our thoughts to the geography of Wales, and not just the problems, but the opportunities that Wales offers. This is a topic I’ll pick up in more detail in point three
  • The third dimension is that of the global socio-economic and political context. In the passage towards Brexit there will be changes in international relations and trade and this will inevitably have both positive and negative impacts on individual Welsh businesses, and we’ll be concerned with maximising the advantages. Another concern of particular current importance is that of national security – not just for Wales, but for the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. There is a need for continuous development of defence capability, intelligence, and communications technology

file_69223_Page_01Point two: measurement, and measuring methods of measurement. This report provides some heartening measurements of the role of physics-based industry in the Welsh economy: £5.2 bn gross value added in 2013, and circa 84,000 employees in physics-based industries in 2015. The difficulty is to make valid comparisons with data in different time periods and from different sources: how exactly are the calculations made?

For example, one might make a comparison between Wales and Scotland, or with Finland. These might be valid comparisons based on population size and the geographical challenges posed. The GDP per capita for Finland compares well with that for the United Kingdom as a whole, but the gross value added for Wales, Scotland and most of England falls well short of that for London and for the South East, so in real terms, does Wales match up with Finland? What could Wales learn from studying the Finnish approach to technological innovation?

The OECD produced, a report Science, Technology and Industry Scorecard: 2015, which is a long report, but the figures 12 and 13 on pages 28 and 29 make particularly interesting reading. They show the international decline in manufacturing over the past 50 years. In the UK, jobs in manufacturing have fallen from 30% of all jobs to just 8% – the highest of all OECD countries to the lowest. Worse, the share of those jobs which are innovation jobs has fallen further. By whatever measure, physics tends to be at the leading edge of what might be termed engineering innovation: so physics-based industries are both the key to growth and the more heavily impacted by this decline.

Point three: physics leadership – what can be done to reinvigorate innovation and high-value manufacturing, and what is specifically suited to Wales?

Well, I think there are two particular physics or technology sectors that deserve special consideration: energy and space. Both tick all the boxes, such as economic impact and societal needs for the future, and both place big demands on technical skills and innovation capability – place a demand for physicists.

In terms of energy, one thinks first of the new nuclear power station, the Horizon development at Wylfa on Anglesey, and perhaps also of the small modular reactor concepts being proposed, which could meet smaller energy demands in a more flexible way. But Wales also has a strong position regards renewables, and is very well placed to take the lead in particular new renewable technologies, such as tidal lagoons.

In terms of the space industry, we are now at the start of a surge of interest in space, and the benefits it can have on the downstream services it could provide, but to maximise our role in this, we need to get directly engaged in the upstream technology development. I mean the underpinning work to develop space hardware. The Welsh government and other organisations, particularly the Wales Aerospace Forum, have been raising awareness of the opportunities in the sector, and the particular geographic advantages of developing a spaceport at Llanbedr.

In summary, it can’t be stressed enough that the biggest benefits that physics-based industry can provide to the Welsh economy will come through innovation leadership. This will generate the high value manufacturing and services needed to drive the Welsh economy further. Physics innovation leadership will require continued investment in education and skills, as well as encouragement and the fertile soils for innovation companies to grow and flourish in.

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Alison McMillan

Alison McMillan

Professor Alison McMillan is professor in aerospace technology at Wrexham Glyndwr University and a former IOP vice-president for business
Alison McMillan

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