Ottoline Leyser of UK Research and Innovation: “If someone disagrees with you, that’s a fabulous thing”

Ottoline Leyser, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, thinks we have valuable leadership lessons to learn from vegetables. Since her school days, Leyser has been “captivated” by the way plants grow and adapt to their environment – and struggles to understand why others might not be captivated.

Unlike genetically pre-programmed animals, which take generations to adapt, plants have to reinvent themselves every day. They grow towards the sun, decide the best time to germinate based on the weather, and try to resist predators, which is difficult when you’re rooted in place. “In a plant context, most development occurs post-embryonically, creating extraordinary flexibility in form,” she says.

Leyser, who was made a dame in 2017, smiles at the (unoriginal) suggestion that her academic obsession could have served as the perfect preparation for her current role as chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, the public agency tasked with distributing more of £8 billion. of research funding per year. Despite the government’s determination to make Britain a ‘scientific superpower’, the country’s research community faces uncertainty in the post-Brexit world and a possible ejection from the £95bn Horizon Europe science program euros. He had to adapt quickly.

Aware of the changing political and economic soil in which UKRI is embedded, Leyser is trying to develop an ambitious and decentralized approach to supporting impactful research and innovation. “I really like to think like a vegetable,” she says, in an interview at UKRI’s offices overlooking the River Thames in central London.

The 57-year-old professor was appointed chief executive of UKRI in 2020, taking on the agency’s mission to “seize the historic moment of national reinvention”. The public body was set up in 2018 to coordinate the efforts of seven research councils, spanning medicine, engineering, physical and biological sciences and humanities, as well as Research England and innovation agency Innovate UK .

Leyser says she was interested in applying for the position at the same time she was approached to apply. Its ambition is to help UKRI build a more diverse and interconnected research environment that will bring real value to the economy. His challenge is to persuade the heads of the nine councils who sit on UKRI’s executive committee to put their collective ambition above sectoral interests. “The incredible power of UKRI is that we have a portfolio of activities that produces all kinds of results,” she says.

Her previous role was running the Sainsbury’s Laboratory in Cambridge, which she described as her dream job. Founded in 2011 with an £82 million endowment from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the lab focuses on computational modeling of plant biology, with over 120 researchers. Leyser put into practice his belief that research stems more from community collaboration than solitary genius. “Research is essentially a collective enterprise,” she says.

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic has made this point clear, argues Leyser, highlighting how it is possible to bridge the gap between science and society. Although traumatic for many people, the shared experience of the pandemic could nonetheless result in a “Covid dividend” in terms of increased appreciation of the value of collaborative research.

Vaccine development owes a lot to the work of individuals. But it also depended on the accumulated knowledge of previous scientists, the manufacturing expertise of companies, the adaptability of regulators, the dedication of the NHS and the massive participation of volunteers and citizens, who rolled up their sleeves to make sting.

“I think Covid is creating a window of opportunity,” she says. “There has been a massive shared national effort to help us through the pandemic. That’s why this separation of R&D as something smart people do is so problematic. »

In his view, too much emphasis has been placed on too narrow a set of measures, such as citations in prestigious publications. This tends to nudge searchers toward predictable research and encourages compliance. Its purpose is to provide more “psychological safety” for researchers to take risks. “If someone disagrees with you, that’s a fabulous thing. We need a system that values ​​differences,” she says.

While acknowledging the importance of metrics, Leyser argues that they need to be interpreted in a broader societal context given the complex relationship between inputs and outputs in scientific research. “We need to support people who take these amazing intellectual risks. But the way our incentive systems work in research undermines that risk-taking instead of supporting it.

Naturally, Leyser welcomes the government’s commitment to increase funding for scientific research and the opportunity to rethink the way it is conducted. Over the next three years, the government has pledged to increase UKRI’s research budget by 14% to £8.9 billion. The organization’s four-pronged strategy is to promote people, places, ideas and innovation. The aim is to make the UK the most attractive destination for researchers, build world-class institutions and infrastructure, seize opportunities from emerging research trends and build high-growth business sectors of the future.

As admirable as these ambitions are, they will ring hollow with many UK researchers facing the harsh realities of Brexit and financial restrictions. Like the majority of British scientists, Leyser voted Remain in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. She still hopes it will be possible for Britain to continue to be part of the EU’s Horizon research programme, which is the “best option” to allow researchers to stay connected to a pan-European network. But if Britain loses that association, she says, then UKRI will have to work even harder to establish global collaboration.

Leyser also stresses the need for diversity. She encouraged more women to pursue scientific research. But she’s also aware of the need to find people with smart ideas from unconventional backgrounds. She hopes the new Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (Aria), a separately funded high-risk, high-reward research agency, can help unearth unconventional innovators. “For me, the fundamental question is to create a culture that loves difference,” she says.

Three questions to Ottoline Leyser

Who is your leadership hero?

I have been fortunate to work with many great leaders over the years and learned a lot from each of them, but I will choose my mother as my leadership heroine. She hasn’t held positions that most people would consider leadership, but that’s the point. Leadership is not about titles or telling people what to do. It’s about understanding what needs to be done and working to make sure it happens.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

It is very common to make totally unfounded assumptions about what can and cannot be changed. Zooming out to question assumptions and consider all options can be transformative.

What would you do if you weren’t CEO?

The UK has cutting-edge research and innovation, but we are not reaping the full benefits, neither economically nor socially. Our research and innovation system is too fragmented. If I weren’t doing my current job, I’d be trying to tackle one of the most problematic barriers – between science, at large, and society at large. This requires changing the way we all think about science, perhaps changing the way science is cataloged in the media, in curricula, or in cultural institutions such as museums and libraries.

Although her original appointee stepped down earlier this year, Aria announced last week that she had named Ilan Gur as her first chief executive. Gur is the founder of Activate, a US-based nonprofit that has helped scientists launch over 100 start-ups.

In a Women in Science lecture given at Durham University in 2018, titled The Joy of Being Wrong, Leyser quoted Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research. Naturally, Leyser added, such uncertainty made people uncomfortable. But being comfortable with uncertainty was a prerequisite for advancing science. “High-quality research depends on our ability to find ways to embrace the unknown and enjoy being wrong.”

Leyser’s approach has already gained supporters. “I am excited about his vision of what research and innovation can be in this country,” says Suranga Chandratillake, venture capitalist at Balderton. “She has a global vision that innovation should become relevant for everyone.”

Yet Leyser’s vision of a collaborative, high-risk, long-term approach to scientific research appears to be the reverse of political practice in Britain, which often feeds on division, aversion to risk and short term. Scientists and politicians tend to operate on different agendas, priorities and clocks.

Leyser acknowledges the stark differences between the two worlds, but is enough of a politician herself to make sure she doesn’t stray from the government’s message. She can agree with the provocation that politicians aren’t as interesting as vegetables. “But the people are still very interesting,” she laughs.

Before the politicians get offended, it’s worth pointing out that, in Leyser’s world, very few subjects are as captivating – or instructive – as plants.

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