Talking leadership 50: Nancy Rothwell on superstar academics

The head of the University of Manchester discusses a lifetime of science outreach, supporting regional development and the humanities

November 15, 2022

The drawback of having superstar academics on staff is that sometimes even the head of the institution gets treated like their agent, says Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester – although she is clearly fond of her most famous faculty member, the particle physicist and television presenter Brian Cox.

“The fact that Brian Cox can sell out the Sydney Opera House for two nights on the run – that’s pretty good. Actually, his whole tour [of his show exploring the nature of the universe, space and time] is sold out.” While faculty may occasionally gripe about his fame, she points out that he still teaches first-year physics and “always does anything I ever ask of him”.

Stars such as Cox, Royal Society professor for public engagement in science, are one cog in a machine of science outreach that Rothwell has built at Manchester. “I’ve always been a huge advocate of communicating science. I think it’s something all scientists, if they’re any good at it, should do.” In the latest in our Talking Leadership series, Rothwell tells Times Higher Education about the benefits and the downsides of science outreach, which include building self-esteem and being told by Special Branch that you’re a target for violent extremists.

Rothwell is proud of other stars based at the university – referring to Danielle George, an engineering professor, and Dan Davis, a professor of immunology who writes popular science books – and says she keeps an eye out for potential new talent. When she spots them, she’ll often ask Cox to give them the lowdown on the world of public academia.

Some may find managing celebrities difficult at times, but Rothwell appears to embrace it. Of the university’s former chancellor, the author Lemn Sissay, she says: “Lemn’s brilliant, because he does all these formal events and he goes completely off-piste at all of them. He has a script that he never follows, doesn’t keep to time, but it’s wonderful. They’re always warm and enjoyable.”

Going off-piste certainly doesn’t scare Rothwell: in 2013 she told The Guardian that her motto was “break the rules and see what happens”. Does she still adhere to rule-breaking today? “Not big ones; little ones,” she says. It hasn’t done her career any harm. A distinguished neuroscientist, Rothwell was the first female vice-chancellor at Manchester when appointed in 2010, and the first at a redbrick university. She was appointed a dame in the 2005 Birthday Honours and, in 2013, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme ranked her as the 15th most powerful woman in the UK.

Throughout her career, she has emphasised science communication, which she says is as important as traditional research “in its own way”.

“The only downside is, it’s such fun, you can end up getting dragged into it and doing an awful lot of it.”

She is no stranger to publicity herself. After growing up in Lancashire, Rothwell moved south to study for a degree in physiology at the University of London. She began doing science outreach while pursuing her PhD. “It’s very rewarding as if you’re a scientist, you go to a meeting, you give a talk, and you get criticised. You go and talk to a patient group or a school, they sort of hang on your words. It builds your self-esteem a bit.”

Having changed fields from obesity to neuroscience – “best thing I ever did” – she continued looking outwards beyond academia. “Some of my most positive experiences have been talking to stroke survivors and stroke carers. I even have some ideas for experiments and research from public meetings.”

In 1998, Rothwell presented the Royal Institution Christmas lecture, televised on the BBC, and “got a huge amount of fan mail”. But when she spoke out on the topic of animal testing, the reaction was not so positive.

Hit list

Rothwell was the vice-president for research at Manchester and the chairwoman of the Research Defence Society in 2005 when she was quoted in the media saying: “It’s vitally important that the research community sends the message that animal research is crucial for medical progress, that it is conducted humanely, and that we work within strict regulations.”

“I was very prominent in talking about and explaining the need to use animals in research, which got me some hate mail,” she says, before adding casually, “and Special Branch come and tell you you’re at risk and things like that”.

She was on an extremist animal rights group’s hit list, and the security services informed her that her address, her mobile number and her car registration were all in the public domain. “They said, ‘You should be alert.’”

During her time leading Manchester, Rothwell has pushed the university to integrate more with the city. “At one time, universities were very inward-looking,” she says, and they could all do with being more porous.

The university is developing a new site with property company Bruntwood and Legal & General called ID Manchester, an innovation district where entrepreneurs will have space to develop their ideas. It is also working with Leeds and Sheffield universities on Northern Gritstone, an investment company for start-ups chaired by Lord O’Neill, former chief economist at Goldman Sachs, that is funded entirely by investors rather than the government. “That was specifically done because getting early investments outside of London has been difficult. And so we decided we would do it ourselves.”


Does she think the levelling-up agenda has been a failure, then? “I honestly think it’s too early to say.”

Northern Gritstone came about because of “a view that we took with the vice-chancellors of Leeds and Sheffield and our staff that, actually, we can’t always expect the government to fund things, [so] maybe we need to do it ourselves”.

She is pleased that government departments are moving up north, and says “to me, levelling-up isn’t about fairness or equity, although that is important. It’s about the fact that productivity in these regions is way below the national average. Unless it comes up, the UK will not come up.”

With her passion for science communication, is Rothwell concerned about some of the anti-science conspiracy theories such as the anti-vaccine rhetoric? “Not as worried as I have been in the past.” Covid was a net boost for science, she says. “I’m a little bit worried about this big push on bright, shiny things, and ignoring things like creativity and understanding our history and languages, which are less popular now as subjects at university.

“If anything, I’ve got a bit of a campaign at the moment to make sure we don’t forget the humanities.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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