By Kate Madley

Swansea University visited Texas last week to launch a number of collaborative partnerships with a group of five Texan universities.

During the visit, Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister for Wales and now Chancellor of Swansea University, launched the George Abbey Fund, which will provide scholarships to students from Swansea and its partner institutions in Texas to facilitate student exchange programmes, covering travel and accommodation costs.

Wales World Wide spoke exclusively to the former First Minister to discuss the rationale for the partnership, what it will mean for our students and his experience in America’s second largest state.

“We tend to think of Houston as an oil town in the USA, but it is an awful lot more than that,” says Mr Morgan.

“We were particularly interested in strengthening the links at the frontier between academia, commercialisation and the knowledge economy. The oil wealth of Texas and the gulf coast has been recycled into higher education, medicine, bio-sciences, and the life sciences industry; we want to lock into this by forming partnerships with Swansea and the Texas collaborative, three universities and two medical schools.

“It is a very important base because it’s a world-class centre for those industries.”

The scheme will run as an endowment fund, designed to support students studying in subjects associated with Mr Abbey such as science, engineering and the arts, particularly Celtic Studies.

George Abbey was previously director of the NASA Johnson Space Centre and is now a senior fellow in Space Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Mr Abbey was born to a Welsh-speaking mother from Laugharne and has always kept a strong interest in Wales and his Welsh heritage.

“George is so unbelievably proud of his Welsh roots; he’s got so many contacts, especially in the aeronautics and space industry, and is so highly admired as an iconic name in Houston,” says Mr Morgan.

“George is very keen on Celtic studies, Welsh and so forth. He is very proud that his mother was a Welsh speaker, and his older brother born in Aberporth before the family emigrated to Canada initially and then down to the USA. He is really keen that this (project) should not just be restricted to science.”

The scholarship scheme was launched at a dinner at the Houston home of the HM UK Consul General for Texas, Andrew Millar. Mr Abbey is an Honorary Fellow of Swansea University, where his son James Abbey is an international strategic collaboration adviser.

Mr Morgan emphasised the value of the two-way relationship between Swansea and the Texas universities, with the institutions offering students unique experiences and opportunities.

“Our main interest was the astonishing Texas medical complex on the edge of the Houston downtown,” he explains.

“It has 77,000 people working there and has a complex of hospitals and medical research centres. It is unbelievable to go round it. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world – 77,000 people working either delivering medical services or doing research and training related to medicine.

“They emphasised the relationship they already have with Swansea is not just them showing us how to do things, it is a two-way relationship. We met some Swansea PhD students and staff whilst we were there and the Texans expressed great admiration for what they were bringing to the party. We just want to see it strengthening.

“It is a mouth-watering place to lock into with the critical mass of medical and bio-sciences expertise.”

Swansea’s new £250m science and innovation campus, which will be located on Fabian Way, is of particular interest to the partner institutions in Texas.

“We are embarking on the most exciting adventure in Swansea’s 95 year history,” he adds.

“Not only is it the biggest new campus, but it has a business park built in. We can model a brand new campus on the sea front, and that’s one thing they definitely don’t have in Houston. They were very impressed by that thought.

“The environment would be completely different but very exciting for their students coming over for six or 12 months exchange, and also for the faculty working together providing the right kind of super modern facilities for the development of spin-off life sciences and material science companies based on Swansea’s strengths.”