The friendly face of policy

August 24, 2001

The BBSRC's new head will be one of the most influential women in British science. Julia Hinde finds out what she has in store.

In between the computers and books crammed into Julia Goodfellow's Birkbeck College office are paintings - bright primary colours, originals, signed by the artist - "To Mummy". Goodfellow is happy. Her son has just received his A-level results and is off to university, and she has just been named one of the first female heads of a UK science research council.

From January, she will lead the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which has a research portfolio of more than £250 million. The post will make her one of the UK's most influential science policymakers.

Goodfellow, a professor of biomolecular sciences and Birkbeck's vice-master, says she is delighted with the challenges that lie ahead. The science community seems equally pleased.

"She's ideal for the position," says Mark Sansom, a professor of molecular biophysics at Oxford University. He points out that as well as having a detailed knowledge of her own area, Goodfellow has a broad perspective of post-genomic biology. "Far-thinking, interdisciplinary, astute, lively and refreshing" is how he describes 50-year-old Goodfellow. "She's enthusiastic, with massive energy and appetite for work."

Elsewhere, the appointment has won similar praise, particularly from women.

Goodfellow's enthusiasm is palpable. She is excited to be leading biology through "what promises to be one of the most exciting periods of research in the biosciences". The government, she says, seems very positive about science - "the amount of money coming in over the past few years is unprecedented" - and the UK is strong in post-genomic biology, where change is happening very quickly.

"It seems an incredibly exciting time," she says. "It would be great to get that feeling to young people - to tell them they will have the resources to do their work, and that you do not have to be in a small area but can have a much broader career in science."

Goodfellow is quick to stress how important integration across different levels of biology will be for the future, and she believes in integrating across disciplines, too.

This comes as no surprise, perhaps, given that Goodfellow is a biologist with an undergraduate degree in physics who made her name in biomolecular simulation, using computers to model the structural dynamics of DNA and, more recently, of proteins.

Goodfellow - who admits to having a passion for feminist detective fiction ("I read everything") and making tapestries ("I find it very relaxing and can do a lot of thinking then") - is set to bring a breath of fresh air and colour to the research council in Swindon. "I hope to bring my personality to the job," she says.

Supporting PhD students is high on her agenda - "it's something we will be looking at year on year," she promises - as is maintaining a balanced portfolio and making sure the UK is aware of where technologies are going.

Goodfellow has a research group at Birkbeck, where she is head of the School of Crystallography, and she is keen to keep her hand in research despite her move to Swindon. "Being head of a research council is, I am sure, more than a full-time job. But some previous heads have kept some research going. I think it's useful to maintain some links to keep your feet in reality. But I am also adamant that I want to see my family."

Goodfellow, who has two children, is obviously accomplished at the task of balancing work and family. "I've worked hard and been organised," she says.

She is one of a number of women coming to the fore in science - she cites Janet Thornton, Susan Greenfield and Julia Higgins as other examples. But she agrees that a science career can be hard for women if, for example, their partner needs to relocate for work, and particularly for those with children if, say, meetings are called at short notice. "I think it's hard for men, too," she notes. "It can be very hard for a man to say, 'I am not going to the seminar, I am picking up my child'."

For our meeting during school holidays, Goodfellow can breathe easy. The in-laws are over, so the children are looked after.

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