Ottoline Leyser: how will new UKRI chief change UK science?

Beyond the challenges of Brexit and Covid-19, the UK’s new science chief is seen as likely to seek reforms to ‘workaholic’ research culture practices and the REF

July 16, 2020
Picture credit: Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

When Dominic Cummings made his infamous appeal for “super-talented weirdos” to apply to work at No 10, the prime minister’s top aide was clear that he had little time for family-friendly working practices. Junior researchers he hired, he wrote in January, would “not have weekday date nights” and “will sacrifice many weekends”. “Frankly it will be hard having a boy/girlfriend at all,” he said.

Given this indifference to work-life balance issues, some might have been surprised to see Dame Ottoline Leyser named chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, the country’s £7 billion-a-year research funding body, in a selection process that many believe was highly influenced by Mr Cummings, widely regarded as the guiding hand behind UK science policy.

Dame Ottoline, who succeeded Sir Mark Walport in late June, may have impeccable academic credentials as the director of the Sainsbury’s Laboratory at the University of Cambridge since 2010, but the 55-year-old plant scientist is also well known for her efforts to make UK science more inclusive for those with children and other caring commitments. In 2016, she led a Royal Society project titled Parent, Carer, Scientist, a collection of 150 personal stories from scientists on how they had juggled their scientific and caring responsibilities.

One of those was Dame Ottoline’s own story, in which she described marrying in the year she graduated from Cambridge, having two children either side of her postdoctoral research at Indiana University and becoming a lecturer at the University of York in 1994, where she was made a professor in 2002.

“Research needs diversity and diversity means diverse people, living diverse lives with diverse approaches and diverse experiences,” reflects Dame Ottoline in the book’s introduction, explaining that a “narrow workaholic focus can be unproductive” for researchers.

Other differences between the two people at the top of UK science could also be significant, said Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. “Dominic’s notion is that good research is done by a few lone geniuses – he thinks that if you fund a few people with huge brains and let them loose, results will follow,” explained Professor Bishop, who attended a round table of senior scientists chaired by Mr Cummings at Downing Street last summer.

“That is the antithesis of Dame Ottoline’s view,” said Professor Bishop, who explained that the UKRI head’s desire for more collaborative research environments placed less emphasis on individual brilliance.

Dame Ottoline’s interest in research integrity and her criticisms of how academia can reward scientific game-playing will also be welcomed by the sector, continued Professor Bishop.

“She is very concerned about how bad incentives lead people to publish all the time,” said Professor Bishop, who added that she shared Dame Ottoline’s concern that too much weight was placed on producing headline-grabbing results, rather than encouraging a culture in which good science happens.

“She has a wonderful quote, which is ‘if you are only doing ground-breaking research, you simply end up with a lot of holes in the ground’,” said Professor Bishop, who argued that UKRI could play its part in fixing a system where “people only get promoted for having publications in flashy journals”.

With Dame Ottoline now leading the body overseeing the research excellence framework, her opinions on getting research incentives right will be more influential than ever; in 2017, writing on behalf of the Royal Society, she called for the REF to “shift its emphasis from the work of individual researchers to a portfolio approach”.

That desire for a slimmed-down REF may, however, be difficult to square with her ambitions to transform research culture, said James Wilsdon, Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield.

”Her position is on the more radical end of reform, but the REF is also one of the most effective means of encouraging and driving large-scale change across the sector, as we’ve seen with the move to open publications,” said Professor Wilsdon.

“It will be difficult to radically reform research while also stripping back the REF.”

Other issues on Dame Ottoline’s plate include helping UK science recover from the disruptions caused by Covid-19, the increase in UK research spending to £22 billion a year by 2025 and what the UK’s network of international partnerships will look like if it cannot associate with Horizon Europe, the European Union’s new seven-year research initiative.

Encouraging the UK’s research councils to work together in a more innovative and interdisciplinary way will be another key challenge, said Stuart Taberner, dean for interdisciplinary research at the University of Leeds, who was director of international and interdisciplinary research at UKRI between 2016 and 2018.

“That was one of the driving agendas for its creation, so if it doesn’t achieve this over the next few years, UKRI will have failed,” said Professor Taberner.

That cooperation was happening mainly thanks to a “few large cross-cutting funds”, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund, but “councils are not used to this approach”, he said. “Outside these funds, collaboration is pretty low, although we are seeing some progress on things like artificial intelligence,” added Professor Taberner.

UKRI’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – releasing research funds quickly, minimising red tape and encouraging interdisciplinary projects – may provide a good model on how this agenda might progress under Dame Ottoline’s leadership, believed Professor Wilsdon.

“It has given us a glimpse of the more nimble, agile and entrepreneurial UKRI that could emerge over the next few years,” he said.

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Reader's comments (3)

A really challenging role. Looks like the paradox of diversity, individual genius and partnership will get a practical pilot to be itself, researched. We also need to evaluate the relative benefits arising from the different types of institution that will be receiving funding in future. Which will work better? Universities, Centres of Excellence, Private Commercial or Voluntary / Charitable? Or has it been already decided that all will work in partnership? If so does this mean that fewer issues will be tackled but more money spent on each? Another paradox; when does unnecessary duplication become partnership? As for diversity, we not only need this at the operational / execution level but also among the group of people who decide the issues to be researched.
Let's see what this new chief achieves in addressing the racial discrimination in UKRI funding issue...
I can't say I necessarily agree that "stripping back REF" will lead to poorer research outcomes and not being able to drive change. For example, you could have a simple metric that took all outputs and gave a percentage that were OA at different levels (green, gold or Plan S if we go there). The same could be done with OA data. Collaborative working with a range of different partners could be captured. Balance between innovation income and projects vs pure research could be captured. This use of metrics might be "leaner" and more balanced. Maybe the way we rank outputs themselves would need to be similar, but the scoring could be lowered to emphasise over healthy research environment issues, much as we have seen with the increase of the impact agenda. This would drive change still?