'Diplomat of science' joins Leicester to head up pioneering multidisciplinary research institutes

Posted by ap507 at Jul 01, 2016 10:57 AM |
Professor Iain Gillespie discusses the launch of four new research institutes at Leicester and their 'incredible potential' to tackle global challenges

The launch of four pioneering multidisciplinary research institutes puts the University of Leicester in a strong position to benefit from national and international changes in the way research is funded and organised, says Professor Iain Gillespie, the University’s new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise. 

As beacons of research excellence, they have “incredible potential” to tackle big global challenges and attract new income, says Professor Gillespie, who joined the university in January from the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) where he was the Director of Science and Innovation.

The institutes in Precision Medicine, Space and Earth Observation Science, Structural and Chemical Biology, and Cultural and Media Economies, are being created as part of Leicester’s refocusing on discovery-led research and teaching. They will stimulate new thinking at the intersection of different disciplines and be focal points for global research.

Professor Gillespie believes the planned reform of the research councils and the creation of an overarching body, UK Research and Innovation, will present new opportunities for innovative and agile universities like Leicester.  So will the Global Challenges Research Fund of £1.5 billon over five years announced by the Government in the last Spending Review.   The fund, partly new money from the overseas aid budget, will back research primarily focussed on issues affecting people in Official Development Assistance countries around the world.

In effect it is setting up a new “virtual” research council that will provide a new source of income for innovative programmes, he says. 

“Currently the research councils collectively spend about 70 million a year in this area.   So the extra £300 million a year from the Global Challenges Fund increases that expenditure at least four fold. In order to access that we need to have research offerings from the UK research community that will address challenges which are more global in perspective and where the focus is on individuals in countries overseas. This is quite a big change,” he says. 

Only a third of the Global Challenge funding is new money with £1 billion of it being diverted from the existing science budget.

“It’s basically funding being re-purposed and if it comes from the research council budgets then it will mean less money for purely UK- focussed research and more at an international level,” Professor Gillespie says.

“Our research institutes will bring together people from across the disciplines in areas where the university is world leading and also from innovative projects where new research strands are emerging.  So I think they will be much more agile in bringing forward ideas and capable of crossing disciplinary boundaries in addressing big challenges that the Government is putting in front of us.”

Research outside of the institutes at Leicester will be equally important, and a key development will be building networks across the University from which new beacons of excellence could emerge, he added.

A microbiologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Biology, Professor Gillespie has worked in the corridors of power both nationally and internationally, spending 10 years at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the same working in senior science advisory roles for the UK government. 

He is a passionate about the important role science can play in meeting the world’s challenges and driving economic growth.  He is responsible for developing the concept of the “bioeconomy” at the OECD to describe the economic benefits related to capturing value from biological products and processes.

He also holds Masters degrees in international relations and business administration, and is a champion of the humanities and the crucial role they play in social, scientific and environmental progress.  In particular, he sees the need for even greater convergence between the natural and social sciences to help solve global challenges.

“I was once called a ‘diplomat of science’ and I quite like that description,” he says.

Professor Gillespie came to Leicester from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK’s main funder for environmental science, where he was the Director of Science and Innovation.  He was responsible for the council’s research, innovation, knowledge exchange and fellowship and postgraduate training programmes.  The importance of research impact and collaboration with other research councils to promote interdisciplinary programmes was an important part of his work. He was the lead director for international research across the seven UK research councils.

His decision to move to Leicester was motivated by a desire to be “part of an organisation that is not just talking about making a difference, but actually delivering to make a difference,” he says. “Leicester has expertise in a number of areas that I have and which have can prepared me for the challenges ahead, such as the connectivity of science, the international challenge and driving impact and productivity.”

There is a disconnect between those who set the agenda and those who deliver it, and coming to Leicester will help Professor Gillespie “play a part in addressing that disconnect,” he added.

Before joining NERC Professor Gillespie was the visiting professor for Innovation in the Life Sciences at the ESRC Innogen Centre for Science, Technology & Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh where he had studied as an undergraduate and for his doctorate in microbiology.

For 10 years, between 2001 and 2011, he worked for the OECD providing leadership in strategy, negotiation and operation for science and technology policy throughout the 34 member countries.

Earlier in his career he worked as a lecturer then joined the UK’s first major agricultural biotechnology start-up in Cambridge, the Agricultural Genetics Company Ltd.  In 1991 he was head-hunted by the Department of the Environment as branch head of its biotechnology unit where he took a leading role in the development and implementation of the UK’s secondary legislation on the environmental aspects of the use of genetically modified organisms.

In 1994 he was appointed an assistant director for the Office of Science and Technology in the Cabinet Office and the following year for the Department of Trade and Industry during which time he provided policy support to the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientific Advisor and established the Human Genetics Advisory Commission.

After spending a great deal of his career developing and negotiating policy Professor Gillespie senses that the new shift in science funding presents an exciting opportunity to drive change.

The next step is to expand and build up Leicester’s national and international research networks – moves that will leave the University well prepared for the next Research Excellence Framework.  “I want to be part of that,” he says.


Notes to Editors:

To arrange to interview Professor Gillespie, please contact:

Tony Tysome


Media FHE

Email: tonytysome@mediafhe.com

Ather Mirza

University of Leicester New Centre

Email: am74@leicester.ac.uk

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