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Ottoline Leyser: ‘I’m not going to pussyfoot about’

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 21 Sep 2020

“I went into lockdown as a researcher and come out of it as a civil servant,” reflected Dame Ottoline Leyser, the new chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), on her mid-pandemic career change.

Leaving the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, which she had led since 2010, was a difficult decision, admitted Dame Ottoline in her first interview since taking the helm of the UK’s £7 billion-a-year funding body last month, but the chance to effect change more widely across UK science was too enticing to turn down.

“Over the years, I have built up a well of frustrations about a number of things that we could do better, so to do this at UKRI, particularly at this extraordinary time in our history when things are so unstable and uncertain, was too good an opportunity to pass up,” explained the 55-year-old plant scientist.

The appointment of an active research scientist has been well received by the research community, who had expected someone more steeped in administration, perhaps a vice-chancellor or a research council head, to take what is arguably the biggest job in UK science.

Many hope that Dame Ottoline – known for her critiques of the research excellence framework and science’s failure to introduce more family-friendly policies – will provide a more robust challenge to government policy, having been far closer to the science coalface than most long-serving administrators.

Will she continue to be as forthright as she has been? “I’m certainly not going to pussyfoot about,” said Dame Ottoline on her upcoming dealings with the key players in government.

That said, the recent pro-science moves by Boris Johnson’s administration, which last month reconfirmed its ambition to double research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024, mean that an adversarial stance is probably not the best approach, she explained.

“There is an amazing alignment of plans within No 10, where Dominic Cummings is an influential voice, the Treasury and BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] – I’ve spoken to all of them, and they are all on the same page and keen to build back better [from Covid], consistent with creating a genuinely inclusive knowledge economy,” said Dame Ottoline, who was pleased that the government’s recent research and development road map was “ambitious and had money to back it”.

In this context, her role is “more about bringing people together and bringing people along”, she said, adding that she did not recognise the “us versus them”, science versus government, narrative that some saw.

That new spirit of cooperation was perhaps evident in her views on the new £800 million blue-sky research agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Some fear that the agency, which is the brainchild of Mr Cummings, might divert funds away from basic or translational research elsewhere, but Dame Ottoline saw things differently.

“I don’t view it as a zero-sum game, as some people do,” she said. While it was “important that additional money from the spending review flows down into the research councils”, investment in other parts would “deliver synergies” that “should benefit the whole system”, Dame Ottoline explained.

With the different parts of UK research “deeply connected”, having an overarching research body such as UKRI makes sense, continued Dame Ottoline, who said the coronavirus crisis had underlined the structure’s importance. “It has been massively helpful that UKRI exists as we have been able to move money into central funds to allow research across councils and for applications regarding specific needs,” she said.

Stepping up this collaboration will be a key part of her remit, Dame Ottoline explained, but so too will be the continuation of her career-long efforts to improve research culture and support diversity in science. “It is absolutely part of my motivation for taking the job,” she said.

That task will involve revisiting some of the incentive systems in academia that, she said, are underpinned by a flawed vision of research. “We have built up this notion of the researcher as a kind of Einstein figure beavering away by themselves in a shiny lab or a dusty library, doing brilliant things and that individual comes up with a silver bullet that they fire out in the world and it solves society’s problems,” said Dame Ottoline. This “incredibly problematic framing of how research works creates all sorts of problems”, she explained.

“It is not good for research and does not create a healthy system to work in,” she said, adding that she was “very keen on shifting our incentive system to value a much wider range of truly excellent contributions”.

She was not, however, keen on the idea of forcing institutions to adopt certain practices by making them a condition of UKRI funding in the same way that, in 2015, the chief medical officer, then Dame Sally Davies, made an Athena SWAN diversity award a prerequisite for receiving NHS medical research funding.

“Mandating particular approaches will not deliver the diversity that we need,” insisted Dame Ottoline, who said many scientists felt the decision to make Athena SWAN mandatory “undermined some of the core principles [of the scheme] and how institutions think about diversity”.

“There is no magic thing to do to create an environment where different people feel like they belong,” she added. Instead, it will “require courage” on behalf of those assessing excellence to put the consensus on this issue into practice.

“It won’t just be down to one person – or me – but will require people on grants panels, those making assessments, to give themselves permission to make these changes,” she said.