New BBSRC chief 'Olympic gold medallist' of research

Council head takes a tough line on science's right to move forward, reports Zoe Corbyn

October 2, 2008

If research were an Olympic sport, the new chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) would win gold for "weightlifting with citations", at least according to one online blogger.

Douglas Kell was given the "accolade" on a blog run by one of his postdoctoral research students after he included a whopping 2,184 references in a review paper. Debate ensued, and one poster asked: "Do you think that (Professor Kell) has read every single one of the papers?"

Professor Kell was quick to flex his muscles. "Of course I read all the wretched papers. Not cover-to-cover in all cases, but always the abstracts. It would be bonkers and anti-scientific not to," he wrote.

Meet the newest research council chief executive to join the fray at the BBSRC headquarters in Swindon. His robust response typifies a man keen to engage with students, colleagues and the wider public.

Professor Kell, 55, a professor of bioanalytical science, started this week on a four-year term at the BBSRC, replacing the interim chief executive, Steve Visscher, who will now become chief operating officer.

Professor Kell said he was "surprisingly unfazed" by the job before him. "My interest has always been in trying to understand how systems work and in developing methods for doing that ... Running a research council actually falls into that same space," he explained.

His background as a leading systems biologist and director of the Manchester Centre for Integrative Systems Biology helps position the council very well for the future - it was awarded a comparatively generous settlement in the last budget review to develop research in Professor Kell's field.

"It is probably not unconnected with why I was appointed," said Professor Kell, who will continue his research one day a week.

One priority is to deliver an agenda for a new approach to bioscience that combines theory, computer modelling and experiments. He said that as part of this, the management of information was a pressing priority.

"The statistic I will be drawing attention to is that every year 1 million papers are published in peer-reviewed bioscience journals, which is equivalent to two per minute ... We need methods for dealing with this vast amount of literature data and experimental measurements."

There is also the sticky issue of how to improve the "economic impact" of the research the council funds - and how to convince BBSRC researchers to get on board with the government-driven agenda.

"There will be those who are desperately worried about the economic impact agenda ... (fearing) that blue-skies research will be destroyed in the mad lemming-like dash to satisfy Her Majesty's Treasury. We are not going to abandon responsive-mode blue-skies research (but) I see no contradiction at all between blue-skies research and economic impact," he said. He said he wanted the BBSRC to cultivate research appropriately, in the face of critics who claim that the UK is good at inventing things but poor at exploiting them.

"Impact with mechanism is my little buzz phrase. I am very keen we fund research that has both impact and mechanism ... it means not only doing something that has an economic impact but also understanding the scientific basis for it."

Professor Kell is a staunch supporter of genetically modified (GM) crops and defends their "public good" benefits. He said he was "totally outraged" that Howard Atkinson, the scientist at the University of Leeds who was carrying out the only university crop trial of GM in the country, had his crop destroyed by vandals. He champions the right of scientists to take forward legitimate scientific research without it being destroyed by those who he likened to terrorists.

He said: "We are not going to abandon research into genetically modified plants just because a few people who don't understand the social and economic agenda happen not to like them."

But he said he was also not a fan of spending "enormous amounts" of money putting security around the fields. "It may yet come to that," he said. But the priority was to "continue to engage in the public debate and try and win hearts and minds".

Another big issue facing the BBSRC is the move to multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research.

Trying to get people to understand that they have to work together was difficult, he said, and the research assessment exercise (RAE) did not help. The RAE, he said, "rewards individual researchers" in "mainstream" subject areas, rather than those at the cutting edge.

"The RAE, as was, has not been a friend of multi- and interdisciplinary research. In consequence it has held back the development of some areas of science that could have happened earlier (and) in which the UK could have had a bigger lead."

But he added that in systems biology, the UK had managed to "win the battle" and promote it more quickly than some other countries. "As a consequence we do have a world lead and I hope to keep it that way," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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