Ottoline Leyser, the Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge university, thinks we have valuable leadership lessons to learn from vegetables. Ever since her school days, Leyser has been “gripped” by how plants develop and adapt to their environments — and struggles to understand why others may not be captivated.

Unlike genetically preprogrammed animals, which take generations to adapt, plants have to reinvent themselves every day. They grow towards the sunshine, decide when best to germinate according to the weather and try to resist predators, which is difficult when you are 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 at the (unoriginal) suggestion that her academic obsession might have served as perfect preparation for her current role as chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, the public agency responsible for dispensing more than £8bn of research funding a year. In spite of the government’s determination to turn Britain into a “science superpower”, the country’s research community is facing uncertainty in the post-Brexit world and possible ejection from the EU’s €95bn Horizon Europe science programme. It has had to adapt fast.

Mindful of the shifting political and economic soil in which UKRI is grounded, Leyser is trying to develop an ambitious, decentralised approach to support impactful research and innovation. “I really do like to think like a vegetable,” she says, in an interview at UKRI’s offices overlooking the Thames in central London.

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

Leyser says she was interested in applying for the post at the same time as she was approached to apply. Her ambition is to help UKRI build a more diverse and interconnected research environment that will deliver real value to the economy. Her challenge is to persuade the heads of all nine councils that 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 and that delivers all kinds of outcomes,” she says.

Her previous role had been running 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 more than 120 researchers. Leyser put into practice her conviction that research stems from communal collaboration more than lone genius. “Research is essentially a collective endeavour,” she says.

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic drove home that point, Leyser argues, highlighting how it is possible to narrow the divide between science and society. Although it was traumatic for many people, the shared experience of the pandemic could yet result in a “Covid dividend” in terms of a heightened appreciation of the value of collaborative research.

The development of vaccines owed much to the work of individuals. But it also depended on the accumulated knowledge of previous scientists, the manufacturing expertise of corporations, the adaptability of regulators, the dedication of the NHS and the mass participation of volunteers and citizens, 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 mind, too much emphasis has been placed on too narrow a set of metrics, such as citations in prestigious publications. That tends to drive researchers towards predictable research and encourages conformity. Her goal is to provide more “psychological security” for researchers to take risks. “If someone disagrees with you, that is a fabulous thing. We need a system that values differences,” she says.

While acknowledging the importance of metrics, Leyser says they have to be interpreted within a broader societal context given the complex relationship between inputs and outputs in scientific research. “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 government’s commitment to increase funding for scientific research and the opportunity to rethink how it is pursued. Over the next three years, the government has committed to increasing UKRI’s research budget by 14 per cent to £8.9bn. The organisation’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 to work, to build world-class institutions and infrastructure, to seize the opportunities from emerging research trends and to build the high-growth business sectors of the future.

Admirable though these ambitions are, they will ring hollow with many researchers in Britain who are facing the harsher realities of Brexit and financial restraint. 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 remain part of the EU’s Horizon research programme, which is the “best option” to enable researchers to stay plugged into a pan-European network. But if Britain loses that association, she says, then UKRI will have to work even harder on building global collaboration.

Leyser also stresses the necessity of diversity. She has encouraged more women to pursue scientific research. But she is also aware of the need to find people with smart ideas from non-conventional backgrounds. She hopes that the newly created Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (Aria), a separately funded high-risk, high-reward research agency, can 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 leadership hero?

I have been lucky to work with many excellent leaders over the years and I have learnt a lot from all of them, but I am going to single out my mother as my leadership hero. She has not held positions most people think of as leadership positions, but that’s the point. Leadership is not about your title, nor is it about telling people what to do. It is about understanding what needs to be done and working to make sure it happens.

 What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

It is very common to make entirely unfounded assumptions about what can and what can’t be changed. Zooming out to challenge assumptions and examine all the options can be transformative.

 What would you be doing if you weren’t a chief executive?

The UK has world-leading research and innovation, but we are not reaping the full benefits, economically or socially. Our research and innovation system is too fragmented. If I was not doing my current job, I’d try to tackle one of the most problematic barriers — between science, broadly defined, and wider society. This requires changing how all of us think about science, perhaps through changing how science is pigeonholed in the media, in the curriculum, or in cultural institutions such as museums and libraries.

Although its original appointee backed out earlier this year, Aria announced last week that it had appointed Ilan Gur as its first chief executive. Gur is the founder of Activate, a US-based non-profit organisation that has helped scientists launch more 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 people uncomfortable. But being comfortable 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 approach has already won supporters. “I am excited by her vision for what research and innovation can be in this country,” says Suranga Chandratillake, a venture capitalist investor at Balderton. “She has an all-encompassing view that innovation has to become relevant to everyone.” 

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

Leyser acknowledges the stark differences between the two worlds but is herself enough of a politician to ensure she does not deviate from the government’s messaging. She may agree with the provocation that politicians are not as interesting as vegetables. “But people are very interesting nonetheless,” she laughs.

Before any politicians take offence, it should be stressed that, in Leyser’s world, very few subjects are as gripping — or instructive — as plants.

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