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UK scientists don’t need a corporate saviour as their boss

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The writer is a science commentator

Should a corporate figure hold the purse strings for publicly funded UK science? The idea has emerged after Dame Ottoline Leyser said she would step down in 2025 as chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, the country’s main research funding agency, after one term of office. Her eventful headship has so far taken in Covid, cost-cutting and a row over equality and diversity.

The science, research and innovation minister Andrew Griffith said the government would recruit Leyser’s replacement from among “the very best and brightest”, including from outside research.

Last week, Sir John Bell, the immunologist and entrepreneur who will soon lead the Ellison Institute of Technology at Oxford university, told the FT that a businessperson could take the UKRI helm, to inject strategic thinking into the annual £8bn spending across its nine research organisations.

Hiring an imagined corporate saviour would certainly send a signal about how the government wants scientific research funded — but not a particularly positive one. It insinuates that the country’s researchers, some of whom oversee eight-figure budgets, are administratively incapable; that government-funded science is best directed in a top-down fashion, rather than in the bottom-up manner that historically leads to breakthroughs; and that, ultimately, research exists primarily to serve economic interests.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who was president of the Royal Society from 2015 to 2020, tells me he strongly disagrees with Bell, and that Leyser, a plant biologist at Cambridge university, should be succeeded by a respected scientist. “Having some business executive who has no clue let alone personal experience of what is involved in actual scientific research . . . would be a disaster,” he warns, adding that being overly prescriptive in an effort to pick winners could also backfire.

Ramakrishnan points to basic discoveries in cell biology that are now translating into potential treatments for diseases of ageing. Healthy ageing is already captured under UKRI’s five strategic themes; Leyser has rebuffed accusations that the agency lacks direction.

Similarly, Sir Paul Nurse, another Nobel laureate who now leads the Francis Crick Institute in London, revealed how curiosity-driven studies of yeast cells are furnishing breast cancer therapies. “If you try and direct people,” Nurse said on a podcast last year, “you actually stuff the creative spirit. It’s like telling Picasso to paint in blue or red . . . it’s daft.” Translating those discoveries, he said, requires different people, skills and incentives.

The UK spent about £66bn (around 2.9 per cent of gross domestic product, above the OECD average) on research and development in 2020, with business bankrolling about 60 per cent of it. Broadly, the UKRI, government and academic institutes fund the rest (the newly created £800mn Advanced Research and Invention Agency, funds high-risk research independently of the UKRI). There are incubators, accelerators and catapults to get ideas out of labs and into start-ups.

The sticking point is what comes after. For example, a 2021 McKinsey report identified the UK as a thriving biotech hub, with the country launching the most biotech companies in Europe between 2018 and 2020, and comparing impressively with the US and China. Scaling up, however, is a different story. Ambitious UK biotech leaders identified late-stage financing as a weak spot, with British start-ups regularly crossing the Atlantic to expand. Last year, ministers backed the AI and quantum technology sectors to the tune of £1.5bn and £2.5bn respectively — but, without providing conditions for growth, the country may again be in danger of underwriting the early costs of overseas success stories.

Drafting in a corporate figure does little, of itself, to address some of the barriers to the UK’s science superpower ambitions: the low pay and precarity associated with early careers; the high visa costs that deter overseas talent; and the lack of a stable environment in which to turn the research of today into the money-spinning industries of tomorrow.

If the government was serious about listening to business, it would not be prevaricating over its net zero commitments, to the despair of companies like Ford UK. The green economy is a strategic win-win — as UKRI has already identified. It creates high-skilled, high-paying jobs and promises lower energy costs; that, in turn, can literally fuel economic growth and raise productivity.

If even win-win research cannot find political favour, then the CV of Leyser’s successor is probably the least of our worries.

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