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From the archive: Ottoline Leyser writes on UKRI

Image: Thor Nielsen/NTNU [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Leyser outlined her hopes for newly launched funder in 2018, now she is its CEO

On 14 May 2020, Ottoline Leyser was unveiled as the new chief executive of the UK’s largest public research funder, UK Research and Innovation. She will take over from Mark Walport at the end of June. 

In March 2018, Leyser wrote for Research Professional News that research would only thrive if UKRI supported a broad mix of disciplines, approaches and people. Here, we republish that article in full.


On 1 April 2018, UK Research and Innovation will come out of the shadows and formally come into being. Its establishment is a landmark opportunity for UK research to speak with a unified voice.

This will be crucial as the UK negotiates its future with the European Union and the rest of the world. With the right strategic direction, the new organisation can catalyse a more holistic, agile and interdisciplinary research system.

John Kingman, UKRI’s chairman, wants the agency to be a “strategic brain” for research. The resources fuelling this brain are impressive, with Kingman and chief executive Mark Walport overseeing £6 billion annually, rising to £8bn by 2020. By bringing together the seven research councils, along with Innovate UK and Research England, UKRI can create a united front while retaining each organisation’s identity. Done right, it will celebrate and enhance all disciplines and create opportunities for synergy, collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

Although spanning the full breadth of research in the UK, UKRI oversees only part of much wider investment in R&D, by government, business and others including charities and overseas funders. It is important that government departments retain allocated research budgets to deliver policy-driven research, which often has timescales and criteria for funding that are inappropriate for UKRI.

UKRI must develop strong relationships across this wider funding landscape to ensure the most effective use of its resources. The next 10 years will be critical. Brexit, the industrial strategy and the government’s commitment to R&D spending of 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 provide an opportunity to consider why and how the country invests in research and innovation. Careful leveraging is needed to maximise the benefits of this spending for the whole UK population, including inclusive economic growth, sustainability, wellbeing, cultural enrichment and social cohesion.

Deep consideration of diversity is essential for success. A thriving research and innovation base is built on recognising and supporting many forms of diversity—diversity of disciplines and approaches, funding types, people and their work.

UKRI has been working with government on a number of challenge-led programmes, including the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. How best to tap into the research base to address grand challenges is an interesting issue. The answer probably includes funding for brokerage activities, such as seeking the most effective approaches and intervention points, and assembling the diverse teams that can take the work forward. Addressing these challenges will require funders and government to develop a more accepting attitude to the risk of failure in research.

With UKRI acting as a vehicle for integration across the system, including challenge-led research, the research councils can increase their focus on ensuring the vibrancy of their communities. Challenge-led projects and interdisciplinary synergies need disciplines with a creative culture and significant investment in blue-sky research. This requires flexible funding, from small exploratory grants to large long-term projects, and investment in investigators at all career stages.

A research system’s success comes from the people working in it. To answer complex research questions requires a diverse community of researchers, along with a culture that welcomes difference and supports healthy debate and challenge. Valuing diverse career paths will attract a wider range of people and allow researchers and their ideas to move in and out of academia.

UKRI can help to change today’s research culture to ensure these conditions for excellence are realised. Criteria for assessment must be widened so that varied career paths are recognised and the full range of research activities rewarded and supported—for example, not just new discoveries but also negative results, synthesis and replication.

Communication and engagement with scientists, the public and the government should be at the heart of what UKRI does. As a hub in the research system, there is an opportunity for UKRI to build better communication and more porous interfaces between the research system and those engaged with and affected by it.

Public engagement helps to make research and innovation open and inclusive and allows citizens to make informed choices, supporting the delivery of the benefits of research and innovation. UKRI should identify and share good practice in public engagement. Engagement should be just that—an open dialogue among all those with a stake in research, not an exercise in public relations.

The Royal Society looks forward to continuing its engagement with UKRI in the months and years ahead as it shapes its strategy and begins to implement its vision.

At the time of writing, Ottoline Leyser was chair of the Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group and professor of plant development at the University of Cambridge. On 14 May 2020, she was announced as the new chief executive of UK Research and Innovation.