Wednesday, December 8th, 2021

Plant biologist picked to lead U.K. research funding agency

Ottoline Leyser leads about 130 plant scientists at the University of Cambridge.

Sainsbury Laboratory/University of Cambridge

Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist at the University of Cambridge, will be the next director of the United Kingdom’s research funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the government announced today.

“Many in the community will welcome the fact that the leadership of UKRI is passing into the hands of someone who is a highly respected scientist,” says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield. Leyser co-discovered the receptor for auxin, a hormone that controls plant growth. “I expect she will enter the job with a lot of goodwill,” says John Womersley, director-general of the European Spallation Source and former head of a U.K. research funding council.

UKRI was created 2 years ago as a de facto merger of seven research councils that span all of science as well as the arts and humanities. Its budget is £7 billion, and rising. The reorganization was intended to provide strategic oversight of the entire research community.

Leyser directs the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge, a leading plant research center with 13 research groups and about 130 scientists. She heads the Royal Society’s Science Policy Expert Advisory Committee and serves on the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology. Leyser has also been a voice for increasing diversity in science and improving research culture. “The prevailing culture in science is about competition and still about the lone brilliant-mind type scientist,” Leyser said in a 2017 interview with The Biologist. “It’s individualistic, narrow-minded self-promotion.”

Leyser will take the reins next month from Mark Walport. Before UKRI, Walport had spent 10 years running the Welcome Trust, a biomedical charity with a roughly £1 billion budget, and served as the government’s chief science adviser from 2013 to 2017. “The only shortcoming I can see—she has a relative lack of experience in managing big, multibillion-scale organizations and projects,” Womersley says. “I’d advise her to build a team around herself with that kind of big project and organizational management experience.”

Leyser comes to the job at a time of unprecedented challenges for U.K. researchers. The implementation of Brexit looms in December with the end of a transitional period, and the question of participation in the European Union’s research funding programs remains unanswered. At the same time, U.K. universities face a funding crisis because of the likely loss of international students, whose tuitions brought almost £7 billion last year. In February, Amanda Solloway, who lacks a university degree, was appointed to a downgraded position as science minister that has oversight over UKRI.

There is also opportunity for Leyser. UKRI is tasked with implementing the government’s commitment to raising R&D investment to 2.4% of gross domestic product over 7 years, bringing the country to the average of economically developed countries. A budget announcement in March targeted many scientific programs for boosts. UKRI has yet to release an overall institutional strategy, Wilsdon notes. “I think a big job still to be done is to really deliver on the strategic ambition that accompanied its creation.” And the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he adds, puts a question mark around the government’s ability to afford major new investment in R&D.

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