“Business as usual” as Cardiff University receives £13m investment for research facility despite Brexit.

By Toby Holloway

Cardiff University has received £13m of EU funding for compound semiconductor research. The funding will go towards the development of a state-of-the-art clean room at Cardiff University’s Institute for Semiconductors (ICS).

The ICS facility is a joint venture by Cardiff University and hi-tech company IQE, and will be located at Cardiff University’s Innovation Campus on Maindy Road. Compound semiconductors are used in many forms of technology, from mobile phones to GPS systems, and the ICS represents a significant commitment to innovation and hi-tech research in Cardiff.

Speaking to Gair Rhydd, Heath Jeffries, who is Innovation Communications Manager at Cardiff University, said: “The Institute for Semiconductors (ICS) acts as a bridge between science and industry. It provides cutting-edge facilities that help researchers and industry work together to translate the science into a commercial production environment. Compound semiconductors drive the devices and technologies we use today, from smartphones and tablets to satellite communications and GPS.”

The combined investment from Cardiff University, IQE and the EU aims to transform Cardiff into a leading city for research into semiconductors and create a cluster of hi-tech services and manufacturing.

Mr Jeffries said: “Despite both a long-term need for a UK-based large-scale translational centre in compound semiconductors and a leading research base, no single company has been able to stimulate sizable UK investment. ICS works closely with the Compound Semiconductor Centre (CSC) – a joint business venture with Cardiff-based IQE, a world leader in the design and manufacture of advanced semiconductor wafer products. The Institute positions Cardiff as the UK and European leader in compound semiconductors.”

Speaking about the nature of the research that will be taking place at the ICS, Mr Jeffries said: “Focusing on fundamental science and device development, ICS will build on existing University strengths in optoelectronics, semiconductor devices and materials. The lab will explore novel growth methods and material combinations that industry cannot necessarily accommodate.

“A unique UK facility, fabricating and testing technology in realistic environments, the Institute will generate excellent research and development. The modern facilities and highly skilled staff at ICS will support innovation by delivering services including: advanced device fabrication and process development; prototyping and small scale pilot production; and specialised training, outreach and networking.”

Another aim of the ICS is to provide high-skilled employment for Cardiff, with science and technology graduates from Cardiff University set to benefit from opportunities provided by the Institute.

Mr Jeffries said: “The Institute will offer opportunities for both master’s students and post-doctoral research fellows. It will create opportunities to work directly with industry as the Institute seeks to develop commercial applications. IQE and ICS will be participating in the development of a Compound Semiconductor cluster which will bring commercial expertise together, creating job opportunities for skilled graduates.”

Funding for the Institute has been provided by Cardiff University, the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund and the Welsh Government, as well as with £13m from the EU. In the wake of the UK’s exit from the European Union, many from the science and research community have voiced concerns over the future of investments by the EU in projects such as the ICS.

Further concerns have been raised over the state of Cardiff’s economy post-Brexit, as it was revealed in a recent report by Centre for Cities that the EU is the biggest export market for 61 out of the UK’s 62 cities.

More alarming for Wales is that Cardiff and Swansea are 2 of the top 10 UK cities that are most dependant on trade with the EU, with 61% of Cardiff’s exports and 60% of Swansea’s destined for the EU. This is well above the UK average of 48% and suggests that the Welsh economy could suffer more serious consequences than other parts of the UK should the Conservative government fail to secure a good trade deal with the EU.

Quoted by the BBC, Paul Swinney, principal economist with Centre for Cities said:

“When it comes to Brexit and trade deals we have to prioritise getting the best possible deal with the EU compared with any other country in the world.

“It’s right to be ambitious about trade deals with the US and China, but the EU still accounts for the vast majority of our exports, so we have to be thinking of getting that deal right first if we’re going to protect and grow jobs in places like Cardiff and Swansea.”

Questioned over the security of EU funding for future projects, Mr Jeffries said: “Around a third of the funding for the Institute comes from the EU. The UK Research Partnership Investment Fund provided £17.3m, Welsh Government provided £12m, and the UK’s Research Councils continue to support ICS. The EU is providing £13m. In terms of long-term EU funding for future projects, nothing will change in the immediate future as the UK remains in the EU until a process for exit is agreed. Universities UK is seeking clarity on what is happening in relation to EU research funding.

“In the meantime it’s business as usual. We will provide further information as it becomes available.”

Despite a question mark over the future of similar projects, there is reason to be optimistic. The ICS represents a huge step forward and a statement of intent from Cardiff, as it aims to compete on the global stage and emerge as a front-runner in hi-tech research.