April 19, 2024


The head of the UK government science body at the centre of a libel scandal has called for “creative disagreement” and a higher standard of public discourse, with less polarisation and blame between scientists and politicians.

Ottoline Leyser, the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said that with so much at stake for the planet and given the need for science to propel a transition to a low-carbon economy, it was imperative for policymakers, scientists and the public to be able to communicate.

“We’ve got to work harder to build higher-quality spaces for public debate and disagreement, [for] engaged debate where people listen to each other,” she said in an interview. “[We need to] create environments, situations, where people feel comfortable being challenged, where disagreement is considered a good thing. That is a high-quality research environment. Creative disagreement is absolutely the essence of what we need.”

Leyser came under fire last year from Michelle Donelan, the science secretary, who on the social media platform X accused two academics – Prof Kate Sang, of Heriot-Watt University, and Kamna Patel, of University College London – of “sharing extremist views”. Donelan expressed “disgust and outrage” that they had been appointed to an expert advisory group to Research England, which falls under UKRI.

The minister published a heated letter to Leyser, who undertook an inquiry into the accusations. The investigation found no wrongdoing and Sang took libel action against Donelan. On Wednesday, as the Guardian interviewed Leyser, news of the libel settlement was made public, with Donelan forced to apologise and withdraw her remarks. It also emerged that the taxpayer had paid the £15,000 costs of Donelan’s legal defence.

The distress this episode has caused Leyser is apparent but she remains stoical under fire and tries not to take it personally. “When you’re doing a job like this, you’re wearing a hat called CEO, and that’s the thing that people are debating,” she said.

What would she do to tackle the polarisation? “I’m tempted to say ban Twitter,” she joked. “But that is definitely not the answer. It is important that it is easy for a wide ranges of voices to be heard.”

She added: “There is a serious element of that, which is the quality of public discourse, which has become very captured by social media as a means of interaction.”

That could cause problems, she said. “Social media is great, it’s a very empowering thing, but it makes it easy for people’s anger to amplify.”

People in the public eye should be able to debate better, she added, without singling out individuals. “If you’re academics, if you’re in business, if you’re in government, we’re actually all of us in really quite privileged positions. In the context of research and innovation, we ought to have the tools to engage in these very constructive quality points of discussion, of disagreement.”

Leyser acknowledged that the relationship between scientific research and the governments that pay for it would always be fraught, but wants all involved to seek more constructive ways of approaching problems.

“An organisation like mine, which has inherently a role of sitting at the interface between government and the research and innovation system, our job is to support a fantastic research and innovation system in the UK. That system has to be one to which everyone can contribute and from which everyone benefits,” she said.

“Sitting in that nexus, you can’t help but be caught up in a whole variety of blame narratives of one sort or another, and polarised views. Parts of [the communities involved] are very, very angry. I understand why, and anger is a natural human emotion, but actually orchestrating change from a position of anger is not very easy. It drives people away.”

Leyser, a prominent biologist before she took on this role, will leave UKRI in June 2025 and the government is already seeking a successor. There have been strong hints that ministers are looking for a businessperson rather than a scientist this time. Some scientists have voiced concern that the government is attempting to fill the position with one of its supporters before the general election, in an echo of recent rows over other public appointments, including that of the chair of the Climate Change Committee.

Leyser would not be drawn on the choice. “It’s less about whether you’re from an academic research background or a business background, and more about how you think about the collective endeavour [of innovation]. Businesses have a collective endeavour,” she said. “On the other hand, there’s a complete flipside to that: research in an academic system is more open-ended precisely because it’s not directed to any particular goal, and is free-flowing. So you have an opportunity to be more disruptive.”

She was adamant on one point: whoever took over would have to focus closely on the UK’s target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. About £800m of UKRI’s annual spend of about £8bn is devoted to green ends, though the figure is hard to judge exactly as so many aspects of research are interconnected. Leyser sees massive opportunity in areas such as the role of AI in the transition to a low-carbon world.

She said it was wrong to think the UK may have missed the boat to be a leader in low-carbon innovation. “The huge opportunities, and the huge imperative for innovation in everything that we do [to reach net zero], means that there will be no boats to be missed, because so many boats will have to sail to make this work.”



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