Wellcome appoints northern light

October 24, 1997

THE new director of the Wellcome Trust does not seem that certain about coming to London. He will miss his research and the northern pubs where he likes to listen to folk music and play in the dominoes league.

But even so, Mike Dexter, director of the Paterson Institute of Cancer Research, has decided that a directorship of one of the world's most prestigious medical research charities is too exciting an opportunity to pass by.

Next year, following the retirement of present director Bridget Ogilvie, the 52-year-old cell biologist will be heading south from Manchester. But unlike many of the big names that dominate science policy, Professor Dexter's background is not awash with prestigious universities and institutes. Following a bout of pneumonia at 16, he had left school with one A level, in geology, and his first job was as a manager in a firm making copper wire. He quickly moved, however, to working as a laboratory technician at the Paterson Institute.

"There I was in an environment where scholarship was encouraged, where I saw people could gain great excitement from research," he says.

After taking A levels at night-school and marrying, he finally went to Salford, his local university, to read physiology and zoology. "I was then going to do ecology," he says. "But we went on holiday and when we came back the curtains of the next-door house were drawn. The lad next door had died of leukaemia. It was at that time I decided I would like to come back to the institute and work on leukaemia."

He has spent nearly 30 years at the Paterson Institute, an establishment linked to the Christie Hospital NHS Trust, in Manchester. Much of the time has been applied to developing treatments for leukaemia including bone marrow transplants and more recently gene therapy.

He was appointed as the institute's director four months ago. "I don't think anyone makes a conscious decision to go into science policy," he says. "Once you become head of a group you are in a policy position. You either opt out, or be-come involved in peer review committees and start making decisions. I think it is important that scientists become involved, otherwise politicians will. It's a social responsibility."

Professor Dexter says that as director he has found less time than he had hoped for his own research, having been absorbed instead in developing new initiatives for the institute. "I have found it exciting, more exciting than I initially thought."

Then the Wellcome post was offered. "To turn down such a post, you have to have as good reasons as to accept it," explains the father of four. "I thought about it deeply before accepting, looking at the exciting opportunities. I hope that as director I will be able to contribute intellectually to science and to the occasional research programmes in the UK."

Professor Dexter is not yet ready to discuss his plans for the Wellcome Trust. He says, first, he will be listening to the staff, and to those whom the charity supports.

He says he has no plans to reverse the charity's stance on funding university infrastructure. "Universities have to pull their weight, it's a partnership," he says, "You can't expect any organisation to give a hundred per cent of the effort and funding unless they can see a hand reaching out to them."

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