Go back

‘Ottoline Leyser has a big job on her hands’

UK Research and Innovation’s new chief executive faces many challenges

UK Research and Innovation was already in an uncertain political climate when Mark Walport announced his resignation as chief executive last September. As Ottoline Leyser replaces him, the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified those challenges—but perhaps also created some opportunities.

In the first of three articles, authors from across the research world share their thoughts on where UKRI stands and what its priorities should be. Read part two here and part three here.


‘The challenges are huge’

Ottoline Leyser has a big job on her hands. As a member of the Nurse Review group that recommended the formation of a unified funding agency (they called it Research UK), she will be well placed to know precisely which recommendations have not, so far, translated into practice. I hope she will make good on some of these.

In particular, a single funder was intended to deliver “cross-cutting activities and better strategic thinking”—to be, in other words, more than the sum of the research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. On this score, I think the community is still waiting to see the evidence; and the review of interdisciplinary research promised last summer has not materialised.

There are many questions: has better strategic thinking been visible? What value-added is there in the umbrella organisation? How transparent is UK Research and Innovation, and how representative of the community, including its geography?

The government has promised a substantial uplift in research funding—although, given the state of the economy, it’s best not to think about this in terms of a percentage of GDP. That means big decisions about where new money goes.

Will there be a rethink of the balance of funding between UKRI’s constituent parts? How will the agency interact with any potential Advanced Research Projects Agency? What can UKRI do to support a diverse community of researchers at every stage of their careers? Again, transparency is important—in monitoring success rates, for instance, and then acting on the findings.

The challenges are huge. I wish Leyser the strength and determination to make sure UKRI flourishes, and with it the whole science community.

Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and master of Churchill College


‘A crucial time for the research community’

Ottoline Leyser’s appointment as chief executive of UK Research and Innovation is a shrewd and encouraging move. One of the UK’s leading scientists, Leyser has copious experience, sound judgement and a wealth of ideas—her work on, and commitment to, furthering equality and diversity in science will be particularly valuable.

Mark Walport has put UKRI in a strong position from which Leyser can build, with the organisation better placed to fund interdisciplinary research and make major investments in physical, digital and conceptual infrastructure.  

Leyser joins UKRI at a crucial time for the research community. The Covid-19 pandemic has posed serious challenges to the sector, threatening university finances and jobs, inhibiting mobility, and stopping projects in their tracks. Its effects will reverberate for years to come. 

But the virus has also highlighted the crucial role that research in all fields plays in our society, whether it is in the natural sciences, technology, engineering and maths, or in SHAPE subjects—the social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy. The public understands this, and we know from its promises of increased investment that the government does too. 

The British Academy looks forward to working with Leyser to explore how the whole research ecosystem, including the national academies, can come together to maximise the value of government investment. We will also work with her to ensure that the system is sustainable for the long term while continuing to fund excellent research wherever it is found, whether it is focused on immediate challenges or providing answers to questions we haven’t yet thought to ask.

It is particularly important to secure the pipeline of researchers and support postgraduate and early career researchers, who are facing insecurity and uncertainty. We cannot risk a lost generation.

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the British Academy


‘The sector has three big problems’

The question UK Research and Innovation faces is this: is the shape of the UK’s research sector right for the country’s problems? There is much that is excellent, but the sector has three big problems: it is too small for the scale of the economy, it is too regionally concentrated, and it is underweight in translational research.

The government is committed to addressing the problem of scale through an ambitious spending uplift. But where, and on what, should the new money be spent?

As Tom Forth and I have recently argued, the concentration of research spending in those parts of the country that are already the most prosperous is politically and economically unsustainable. New institutions need to be set up to support lagging economies outside London and the South East.

International comparisons show that the UK has neglected applied and translational research. To meet the government’s target for R&D spending of 2.4 per cent of GDP, public investment must be designed to induce the private sector to spend more.

Yet, paradoxically, many feel that UKRI hasn’t effectively supported basic, undirected research well enough either—in contrast to the European Research Council, whose important role in the UK system is threatened by Brexit.

The role of the nascent Advanced Research Projects Agency, planned to sit outside UKRI, is another complication. UKRI should be flexible enough to accommodate such an organisation; that it is not perceived to be so is a problem.

UKRI does not have an existing, well-developed strategy that would tie the new chief executive’s hands, and work remains in building common purpose among UKRI’s nine constituent organisations. But Ottoline Leyser has a well-earned reputation as a serious thinker about the place of research in the economy and society, not afraid to be critical of aspects of the existing system. She will have the support and good wishes of the research community at a crucial time.

Richard Jones is chair in materials physics and innovation policy at the University of Manchester


‘Reboot charity-funded research’

As a highly respected scientist and outstanding advocate of equality and diversity in science, Ottoline Leyser can help catalyse positive change in the UK’s research culture. 
She takes the helm at a pivotal time for the UK. We’re facing a barrage of opportunities and challenges brought about by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. UKRI’s actions over the next few months will impact our research landscape for years to come, including how they choose to invest their recent 20 per cent budget boost. 
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on medical research charities, which together account for 51 per cent of non-commercial medical research spend in the UK. Our charities are projecting a £310 million shortfall in their research spend over the next year, and expect it to take over four years to recover to normal levels. 

We’re calling for urgent match funding from government to help reboot charity-funded research. The future of our nation’s health depends on this collaboration.  
UKRI is critical to unifying and supporting our diverse research sector to drive economic growth and improve quality of life across the country. We look forward to working with Leyser to ensure the UK remains a world-leader in research and innovation. 

Aisling Burnand is the chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight