Ottoline Leyser of UK Research and Innovation: ‘If someone disagrees with you, that is a fabulous thing’


Ottoline Leyser, the Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge college, thinks we’ve priceless management classes to be taught from greens. Ever since her college days, Leyser has been “gripped” by how vegetation develop and adapt to their environments — and struggles to know why others is probably not captivated.

Unlike genetically preprogrammed animals, which take generations to adapt, vegetation should reinvent themselves on daily basis. They develop in direction of the sunshine, determine when greatest to germinate in line with the climate and take a look at to withstand predators, which is troublesome if you find yourself rooted to the spot. “In a plant context, most development happens post-embryonically, creating extraordinary flexibility in form,” she says.

Leyser, who was made a dame in 2017, smiles on the (unoriginal) suggestion that her educational obsession may need served as excellent preparation for her present position as chief govt of UK Research and Innovation, the general public company chargeable for meting out greater than £8bn of analysis funding a 12 months. In spite of the federal government’s willpower to show Britain right into a “science superpower”, the nation’s analysis group is dealing with uncertainty within the post-Brexit world and doable ejection from the EU’s €95bn Horizon Europe science programme. It has needed to adapt quick.

Mindful of the shifting political and financial soil by which UKRI is grounded, Leyser is making an attempt to develop an bold, decentralised method to assist impactful analysis and innovation. “I really do like to think like a vegetable,” she says, in an interview at UKRI’s places of work overlooking the Thames in central London.

The 57-year-old professor was appointed chief govt of UKRI in 2020, assuming the company’s mission to “seize the historic moment of national reinvention”. The public physique was established in 2018 to co-ordinate the efforts of seven analysis councils, spanning medication, engineering, the bodily and organic sciences and the humanities, in addition to Research England and the innovation company Innovate UK.

Leyser says she was inquisitive about making use of for the publish concurrently she was approached to use. Her ambition is to assist UKRI construct a extra various and interconnected analysis atmosphere that can ship actual worth to the economic system. Her problem is to influence the heads of all 9 councils that sit on UKRI’s govt committee to place their collective ambition above sectoral pursuits. “The incredible power of UKRI is that we have a portfolio of activities and that delivers all kinds of outcomes,” she says.

Her earlier position had been working the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, which she described as her dream job. Founded in 2011 with an £82mn endowment from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the laboratory focuses on computational modelling of plant biology, with greater than 120 researchers. Leyser put into observe her conviction that analysis stems from communal collaboration greater than lone genius. “Research is essentially a collective endeavour,” she says.

The international response to the Covid-19 pandemic drove residence that time, Leyser argues, highlighting how it’s doable to slim the divide between science and society. Although it was traumatic for many individuals, the shared expertise of the pandemic might but lead to a “Covid dividend” when it comes to a heightened appreciation of the worth of collaborative analysis.

The growth of vaccines owed a lot to the work of people. But it additionally relied on the accrued data of earlier scientists, the manufacturing experience of firms, the adaptability of regulators, the dedication of the NHS and the mass participation of volunteers and residents, who rolled up their sleeves to be jabbed.

“I do think that Covid creates a window of opportunity,” she says. “There was a massive shared national endeavour to get us through the pandemic. That is why this hiving off of R&D as something that clever people do is so problematic.”

To her thoughts, an excessive amount of emphasis has been positioned on too slim a set of metrics, similar to citations in prestigious publications. That tends to drive researchers in direction of predictable analysis and encourages conformity. Her objective is to offer extra “psychological security” for researchers to take dangers. “If someone disagrees with you, that is a fabulous thing. We need a system that values differences,” she says.

While acknowledging the significance of metrics, Leyser says they should be interpreted inside a broader societal context given the advanced relationship between inputs and outputs in scientific analysis. “We need to support people who take these astonishing intellectual risks. But the way our incentive systems work in research undermines that risk-taking rather than supports it.”

Naturally, Leyser welcomes the federal government’s dedication to extend funding for scientific analysis and the chance to rethink how it’s pursued. Over the subsequent three years, the federal government has dedicated to growing UKRI’s analysis finances by 14 per cent to £8.9bn. The organisation’s four-pronged technique is to advertise individuals, locations, concepts and innovation. The intention is to make the UK probably the most engaging vacation spot for researchers to work, to construct world-class establishments and infrastructure, to grab the alternatives from rising analysis traits and to construct the high-growth enterprise sectors of the longer term.

Admirable although these ambitions are, they are going to ring hole with many researchers in Britain who’re dealing with the harsher realities of Brexit and monetary restraint. Like the vast majority of British scientists, Leyser voted Remain within the 2016 referendum on EU membership. She nonetheless hopes will probably be doable for Britain to stay a part of the EU’s Horizon analysis programme, which is the “best option” to allow researchers to remain plugged right into a pan-European community. But if Britain loses that affiliation, she says, then UKRI must work even more durable on constructing international collaboration.

Leyser additionally stresses the need of range. She has inspired extra ladies to pursue scientific analysis. But she can also be conscious of the necessity to discover individuals with good concepts from non-conventional backgrounds. She hopes that the newly created Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (Aria), a individually funded high-risk, high-reward analysis company, will help unearth unconventional innovators. “To me, the fundamental question is to create a culture that enjoys difference,” she says.

Three Questions for Ottoline Leyser

Who is your management hero?

I’ve been fortunate to work with many glorious leaders over time and I’ve learnt rather a lot from all of them, however I’m going to single out my mom as my management hero. She has not held positions most individuals consider as management positions, however that’s the purpose. Leadership is just not about your title, neither is it about telling individuals what to do. It is about understanding what must be carried out and dealing to ensure it occurs.

 What was the primary management lesson you learnt?

It is quite common to make fully unfounded assumptions about what can and what can’t be modified. Zooming out to problem assumptions and look at all of the choices could be transformative.

 What would you be doing when you weren’t a chief govt?

The UK has world-leading analysis and innovation, however we’re not reaping the complete advantages, economically or socially. Our analysis and innovation system is just too fragmented. If I used to be not doing my present job, I’d attempt to deal with probably the most problematic boundaries — between science, broadly outlined, and wider society. This requires altering how all of us take into consideration science, maybe by altering how science is pigeonholed within the media, within the curriculum, or in cultural establishments similar to museums and libraries.

Although its authentic appointee backed out earlier this 12 months, Aria introduced final week that it had appointed Ilan Gur as its first chief govt. Gur is the founding father of Activate, a US-based non-profit organisation that has helped scientists launch greater than 100 start-ups.

In a Women in Science lecture given at Durham University in 2018, entitled The Joy of Being Wrong, Leyser quoted Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing it would not be called research.” Understandably, Leyser added, such uncertainty made individuals uncomfortable. But being snug with uncertainty was a prerequisite for advancing science. “High quality research depends on us finding ways to embrace the unknown and enjoy being wrong.”

Leyser’s method has already gained supporters. “I am excited by her vision for what research and innovation can be in this country,” says Suranga Chandratillake, a enterprise capitalist investor at Balderton. “She has an all-encompassing view that innovation has to become relevant to everyone.” 

Yet Leyser’s imaginative and prescient of a collaborative, high-risk, long-term method to scientific analysis would seem like the inverse of political observe in Britain, which regularly feeds on the divisive, risk-averse and brief time period. Scientists and politicians are inclined to function to completely different agendas, priorities and clocks.

Leyser acknowledges the stark variations between the 2 worlds however is herself sufficient of a politician to make sure she doesn’t deviate from the federal government’s messaging. She could agree with the provocation that politicians should not as fascinating as greens. “But people are very interesting nonetheless,” she laughs.

Before any politicians take offence, it must be burdened that, in Leyser’s world, only a few topics are as gripping — or instructive — as vegetation.