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15 May, 2020 - 13:18 By Tony Quested

Sainsbury Lab chief takes lead role in UK’s research drive

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, the distinguished plant scientist and director of Cambridge University’s Sainsbury Laboratory, is the new chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the national funding agency investing in science and research.

Dame Ottoline will take up her position on June 29 replacing Sir Mark Walport, who is standing down. Professor Henrik Jönsson will take over as acting director of the Sainsbury Laboratory.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “Professor Leyser’s appointment comes at a critical time for the UK. The coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of science for our future and UKRI has a vital role to play in this.

“As the new chief executive, Professor Leyser will drive forward UKRI’s mission to create the great British companies of the future and help keep the UK at the cutting edge of global research and development.”

Science Minister Amanda Solloway added: “I am thrilled with the appointment of Professor Leyser and look forward to working closely with her to drive forward our shared ambition to boost our world-leading research and development.

“Since its launch in 2018, UKRI has gone from strength to strength. Professor Leyser has already led a highly collaborative lab in her previous role which will be a great skill to bring to UKRI as it embarks on a new stage of exciting evolution.”

Dame Ottoline has a long-term interest in inclusiveness and engagement in science and has driven many initiatives to support an open and collaborative research culture that delivers high quality research that is both valuable and valued. 

This includes ongoing work to improve research culture. She has for a long time been actively engaged in science policy, currently chairing the Royal Society’s Science Policy Expert Advisory Committee and serving on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. 

In 2017 Professor Leyser was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to plant science, science in society and equality and diversity in science. 

Her own research has resulted in major advances in our knowledge of plant development and includes pioneering work in studying hormonal control of shoot branching through interdisciplinary approaches.

Dame Ottoline, who is also a Fellow of Clare College in Cambridge, said: “UKRI has a unique opportunity to make a profound contribution to tackling the many challenges facing the world.

“In my career, I have seen the power of genuinely collaborative cultures to catalyse the transformative thinking needed to create effective solutions.

“I look forward to working with the UKRI team to ensure that the UK’s superb research and innovation system continues to work for everyone, by pioneering new partnerships, developing innovative funding models and strengthening international collaboration.”  

Professor Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge, said Dame Ottoline would make a worthy successor to Sir Mark Walport.

“The unprecedented challenges facing our society at present, in particular the coronavirus pandemic and climate crisis, demonstrate why investment in research and innovation has never been more important,” Professor Toope said.

“With her passion for research, understanding of the sector and willingness to engage with government, Ottoline will be in a strong position to steer UKRI at this crucial time.”

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