‘Make research fun again’: UK’s powerful funding chief is on a mission to change scientific culture

Plant scientist Ottoline Leyser takes the reins of UK Research and Innovation at a turbulent time.

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Ottoline Leyser posing for a portrait whilst sat at a table in front of a window with trees behind

Ottoline Leyser took over as chief of UKRI in June.Credit: Mike Thornton

Ottoline Leyser is optimistic about taking on the most powerful job in UK science. In June, the plant scientist became the second director of Britain’s behemoth research-funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The agency brought together nine different funders when it was created in 2018, in the turbulent aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. Now, COVID-19 is making the backdrop even more rocky.

Leyser replaces Mark Walport, a former chief scientific adviser to the government. On her plate is overseeing the agency’s £7-billion (US$9-billion) annual budget, coordinating rapid grants for COVID-19 research and responding to a road map on research and development (R&D) released by the government in July. The plan places research at the heart of the United Kingdom’s planned economic and social recovery.

Leyser, former director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, UK, is renowned for her work in understanding plant development. But she is no stranger to policy issues and is recognized as a staunch advocate for diversity in science and for her efforts to tackle the destructive incentives in research’s ‘publish or perish’ culture.

She spoke to Nature about her ambitions to change how research in the United Kingdom fundamentally functions.

What’s it like taking on this role amid the COVID-19 outbreak?

I have come in in the midst of a crisis but, at the same time, at a point where there’s a huge desire to shift the focus away from the crisis and onto the future. The opportunity to come out of this and rebuild our economy in a much more inclusive way is a key part of what I hope UKRI can help to do.

Before UKRI’s creation, scientists debated the need for a new overarching funding organization. What do you see as its benefits? Is it succeeding?

I’m very excited about UKRI as an organization. We have extraordinary depth and breadth of expertise across the research base and into industry and academia. There are many cross-disciplinary, cross-sector challenges — like achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and some of the big health challenges and inequalities that have been highlighted in the COVID crisis. I think we are in a much better position to address these in the context of UKRI than as separate organizations. A good example is how we’ve been able to mobilize that expertise to respond to COVID in a pan-disciplinary, integrated and agile way. That would have been much harder before.

The UK government has promised a big funding boost for science, but this month it announced a record fall of 20.4% in gross domestic product (GDP) for April to June. Do you think the boost will happen?

The good news is that the promise to raise overall spending on research to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 is still on the cards. But more importantly, there is a £22-billion promise [to more than double annual public spending on R&D by 2024–25] that is explicit in the government’s R&D road map. The 2.4% target requires not only an increase in public commitment, but a significant increase in private-sector commitment, and, in the kind of economic crisis that we’re now looking at, that is a big ask. We need to think about how we can use that [public] money best to leverage investment from the private sector.

The UKRI road map mentions ways in which science funding will change. What do you foresee as the main changes scientists should expect?

The thing that I think is most important is the focus on people and on research culture, because the whole research system critically depends not just on researchers, but on all the people around them who support the research endeavour. [Research] is also a system now which is in a lot of stress. There are lots of bad behaviours, which are arguably driven by the huge stress and we need to think hard about shifting that.

Poor cultural practices are a real problem in terms of bullying and harassment, research integrity and keeping the widest range of people in the system, to drive the creative and dynamic system that we need. Getting to a place where people are enjoying the work that they’re doing, where they’re all appreciated and valued, to me, is crucial. Many of those other things I think will flow from that.

What levers can you use to bring about that change?

There’s never going to be a silver bullet. You want to do multiple things simultaneously. But UKRI, because it connects up the whole system, also has the opportunity to do that. I’m interested very much in our assessment processes for grants or for individual researchers, and what we’re asking of people in the system. How can we reduce the pressures on their time? We put a huge emphasis on a researcher’s publication and funding record, for example.

We have put much less emphasis on things like their care for the next generation, leadership skills and the wider contributions people are making to the research system — which are absolutely essential for the system to function — and how they are engaging more widely. I think those are things that every researcher should be doing. It’s a whole range of things that we need to try to address to make research fun again, because it really should be.

The UK research system is very racially homogeneous. Just 0.3% of professors in the natural sciences are Black. What’s your plan to tackle this?

To me, this comes down to really thinking about the entire question differently. The way we’ve typically thought about equality, diversity and inclusion has been that you collect up the numbers and then you try to put in place things that ‘fix’ the minority in some way — for example, you make it easier for women to work in a system. To me, that’s not going to work. You have to create a system that genuinely supports diversity, and what that means is something quite uncomfortable. True diversity and inclusion is about valuing difference, not about creating some level playing field and pretending everybody’s the same and therefore they can all succeed on that playing field.

Particularly in research, difference is where all the good stuff is. Disagreement is where all the new and exciting ideas come from. We have to build research cultures where difference is considered a good thing. In our funding portfolio as UKRI, we need to ask ourselves, are we funding a wide range of different types of thing or are we just funding more of the same?

On Brexit, how confident are you that the United Kingdom will agree to associate to Horizon Europe, the next major EU research programme?

There is a spectacular level of agreement that association would be the best outcome. The sticking point is that the price tag we’re being asked to pay for that is very high. The rules for association are now based on a GDP calculation and that might require us to put in a lot more than we got out. There’s wide consensus that putting in more than we get out is fine, but how much more is a matter for debate, and it’s hard to know whether we’ll be able to reach that number that everybody agrees on.

Because we don’t know, and even if we managed to [associate], there will be a gap, we are indeed working hard to put in place schemes that can substitute for the ones that we will no longer have access to, or to which our level of access will change. For example, in the road map, there is the ambition to put together a fund largely aimed at not only replacing but positively improving on schemes such as European Research Council grants and individual Marie Curie fellowships.

Nature 584, 508 (2020)

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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