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Science and the Assembly

Theme: Sports and Science

May 15 2012

Now established as a major annual event in the science policy calendar, Science and the Assembly provides a great opportunity for Welsh Assembly members and Welsh Government officials to meet members of scientific societies to discuss current topics and issues in STEM research, communication and policy. Hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and held at the Senedd and the historic Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay, the designated theme for this years event, was the interaction of science and sports. This is, of course, a prominent theme in 2012 with the impending Olympic Games in London this summer, although some speakers were keen instead to focus on Wales' recent Grand Slam victory!

As well as the Geological Society, numerous other organisations participated in the day’s events: The Royal Society, Institute of Physics, Society of Biology, Society for General Microbiology, and the Institution of Chemical Engineers, illustrating the multi-disciplinary approach adopted in developing a national science strategy for Wales, under the title Science for Wales. The President of the RSC, Professor David Phillips introduced the event, setting out the importance of integrating research and development, with sport as a case study for ensuring a sustainable economic, social, and environmental future for Wales.

Professor John Harries, the Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales, then set out the Science for Wales strategy, arguing that a strategic agenda for science and innovation in Wales was critical. Under his guidance, the strategy has recently been adopted by the Welsh cabinet as the basis for future STEM and innovation activities. The primary drivers are to focus on the current strengths in the Welsh STEM system, as well as the challenges facing society, whilst supporting the small- and medium-sized enterprises that forge vital links between research and innovation.

Whilst this is clearly a promising step, Harris made the case that Welsh STEM research is proportionally under-funded, despite much of it reaching a world-class standard. Based on citation metrics, 14% of Welsh research is rated as 4*, with 49% rated as 3-4* (based on the RAE 2008). Irrespective of these impressive statistics, Wales receives a 'smaller slice of the RCUK funding cake', if population size is used as a proxy for national scientific capability (3.3% of the research funding allocated for 5% of the population in the UK). This equates to anywhere between £27-64million per year, a substantially lower figure than that which England receives. Closing this gap is a key target.

The strategy identifies three priority research themes for Wales: life sciences and health; energy, the environment and the transition to a low carbon economy; and advanced engineering and materials science. Several initiatives have been established to meet the objectives set out in the strategy. The creation of National Research Networks, combined with attraction of international 'stars', is designed to create the infrastructure required for sustainable research and development in Wales. Already, £50million has been awarded for this strategy from an unequivocally supportive Welsh Government, for a 5 year plan. Harris was confident that this figure could be significantly augmented by obtaining additional funds from the RCUK, Technology Strategy Board, and EU funding bodies, as well as major charities. This would largely be applied to creating strong academic groups with which to sustain higher education in Welsh institutions. An afternoon of scientific presentations followed, chaired by Professor Keith Smith, a Council Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The motto for the Olympics is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The explicit contribution from science to performance in elite sports is to push athletes just that little bit further in their biophysical capabilities. When the difference between a gold medal and nothing can change in the blink of an eye, every millisecond counts towards potential victory. This is where science and technology enter the scene. And given the vital role of sport in sustaining and developing global civil society, the value of investment in sport extends far beyond growing the medal tally of individual nations. STEM research can contribute to development of specialist training equipment, improve health and nutrition, guide our understanding of the physiological and biochemical processes associated with extreme physical activity, and provide tools and an empirical framework for analysis.

Professor Damian Bailey from Glamorgan University, along with guest Marc Jenkins of the British Olympic Triathlete team, discussed the links between oxygen and performance in the context of physiology and neuroscience. Bailey has published a series of papers on this aspect of sports science, greatly enhancing understanding of physical activity and endurance through applied biochemistry. Bailey highlighted how through developing an understanding of the role of oxygen, previously assumed physiological barriers had been shattered, such as the deepest dive and fastest marathon time to date. Naturally, this research is of great interest to the athletic community.

Doctor Gareth Irwin of Cardiff Metropolitan University shifted the focus to the integration of technology and the biology of athlete test-subjects to greater understand the biomechanics of physical activity. Irwin has employed a wide array of techniques, from video footage to force-resistive sensors in shoes and multi-lane light gates. Biomechanics is critical for sports science, as it facilitates the attribution of variations in velocity and other mechanical and physiological parameters, providing a consistent system of targeted technologies which can easily be applied by coaches and athletes to improve performance.

To complete the triad sports science talks, Arwel Wyn Jones of Aberystwyth University discussed the role of nutritional immunology in exercise, with particular focus on test-trials of Bovine Colostrum as a nutritional supplement undertaken as part of his PhD research. Wyn Jones discussed the links between immune function, infection, and nutrition, discussing the role that biotic supplements could play in biological regulation during sporting activity.

After the tea-break, Doctor Nicola Phillips of Cardiff University spoke about physiotherapeutic support for athletes of all levels. Being a Medical Consultant to SportWales, Phillips has extensive experience as a practical physiotherapist, complementing her research. Phillips studies the interaction between kinematic modelling and injury analysis and performance enhancement, and has developed an innovative project for undergraduates and postgraduates to get hands-on clinical experience, which has achieved a London 2012 Inspire Mark.

Following this, Doctor Niall Colgan of Swansea University discussed the application of novel methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in exercise. This increasingly widely-applied method is improving athletic performance by evaluating trauma- and sports-related soft-tissue injuries.

To top off an excellent series of informative talks, Professor Mike McNamee of Swansea University took a completely different approach to the day’s theme, exploring the ethical basis behind sports science, drawing on his extensive experience as an applied ethicist of both sports and medicine. McNamee raised concerns about the use of medicine beyond its traditional therapeutic role, as the emphasis shifts from curing disease to enhancing wellness, and its application in the case of athletes, for example with regards to genetic testing for sports talent.

After a lively audience discussion, the evening reception and exhibition was held in the nearby Neuadd and Oriel of the Senedd, where the sponsoring societies hosted display stands. The Assembly Members who kindly hosted the event and senior RSC representatives congratulated the organisers on an engaging and informative event. The Young Engineer of the Year, A-level student Jessica Jones of St. David’s Catholic College, was congratulated for her development of a device that monitors foetal contractions, alerting would-be mothers as to when they are about to go into labour. The Geological Society would like to extend thanks to the RSC for organising the event, for providing a series of intellectually stimulating presentations, and for inviting the Geological Society and other science organisations to take part.

A summary Twitter feed from the event (hash tag #SATA12) can be found here, created using Storify:


David Rees AM, Eluned Parrott AM, Nick Ramsay AM and Simon Thomas AM.