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Professor Melanie Welham: Me, BBSRC and the future of UK bioscience

Copyright: BBSRC

BBSRC’s new Chief Executive reflects on upcoming changes, Brexit, women in science and dissecting rodents in the garden shed as a curious teenager.

How did you feel when you were offered the position as BBSRC Chief Executive?

When I joined BBSRC as Director of Science in 2012 I never imagined that one day I would become CE – so the first thing to say is this wasn’t anticipated! When I was offered the interim role BBSRC was facing considerable change and uncertainty (following the Nurse review) so I felt it was really important there was stability for the organisation. I felt that knowing BBSRC and RCUK staff as I do, having a research background and experience of interacting with our wide range of stakeholders meant I was in a good position to provide this stability.

What immediate ideas did you have about change at BBSRC?

I’m not a megalomaniac! So I didn’t have immediate changes in mind. I think it’s more about a different emphasis – valuing research that I would describe as frontier bioscience. For the last 4-5 years we’ve been quite focused on our strategic areas, like food security or healthy ageing, and consequently, so I think some researchers think that’s all we’re interested in. I don’t want us to lose our connectivity with them. I’ve been there and I know what our grant applicants experience – and that brings a useful empathy.

What makes for successful bioscience in the UK?

Three elements: first, funding the best science wherever that might be found. I think that’s one of the things we do well.

Second, training the next generation of researchers. They won’t all go on to be research leaders, but the students we support will go onto other careers that will draw on great training experiences.

Third, we need to make sure that scientists and students have access to the best, cutting-edge equipment and the right facilities and infrastructure.

Also, our dual-support system (prospective grants from various research councils, plus retrospective institutional funding based on past research excellence) gives universities a flexibility that attracts top researchers from around the world.

Copyright: BBSRC
Professor Welham came to BBSRC from a career in academic bioscience research. Copyright: BBSRC

What about BBSRC’s future funding priorities: strategic funding vs Responsive Mode for example?

Our Research Advisory Panel has considered this balance and currently around 55% of our funding supports research which is related to our strategic priorities.  This felt about right to them and feels about right to me. If there was too much more of a shift towards funding research in strategic priority areas there would be a danger that we could lose out on some of the really transformational areas of frontier bioscience.

BBSRC Council agreed in principle, and before the last spending review (PDF) , to try and protect our responsive mode programmes and maintain a 20% or above success rate, so that’s reflected in BBSRC’s budget for the next two years.

It’s important to recognise though that our responsive programmes work really hard and support both fundamental bioscience as well as research inspired by and related to our strategic priorities – research is a continuum after all.

What makes for successful UK bioscience around the world?

Science is an international endeavour – as I wrote in my blog – it doesn’t recognise borders and countries. There has been, and continues to be, encouragement for UK researchers to spend time working overseas to get experience and bring it back, such as BBSRC’s ITAS scheme.  

When I finished my PhD I spent six years in Canada working as a postdoc, so I got that vital and varied experience of working in North America. And you bring back a diversity of perspective, as well as networks of contacts that persist into the future. BBSRC supports many programmes with partner organisations in different countries, such as the Lead Agency agreement with the US National Science Foundation, and numerous programmes through the Newton Fund, which enable international collaboration.

What about other areas where BBSRC is making progress, but there’s more do to?

My predecessor, Professor Jackie Hunter, was a real champion in the women in science area – as evidenced in her blog articles – and got equality and diversity high on the agenda in the Research Councils. Now there’s an RCUK action plan and a BBSRC action plan associated with it. We’re continuing to engage with our community on what we’re doing, and what we want to see, such as Athena Swan awards for our institutes.

But there’s a long way to go. In bioscience, 60-65% is women at undergraduate level, which drops to 30-35% for academic staff, then to around 17% at professorial level. This is a shocking statistic – it’s an awful lot of talent we’re not retaining in our research base.

Some of the things we can do to get there include thinking about the language we use – not singling out and highlighting women heading into male-dominated areas.

Then there’s raising awareness, being a champion, and calling out bad behaviours. I fully support female researchers who call out bad behaviour, and I appreciate it’s not easy, especially when challenging an authority figure. And of course male researchers should call it out too.

Copyright: University of Bath
Melanie in her former pharmacology position at the University of Bath. Copyright: University of Bath

You have a passion for this type of ‘frontier’ bioscience. What does it mean to you?

‘Frontier’ bioscience is reaching for that “I never would have thought” feeling of excitement. The frontier is about pushing back the boundaries of knowledge in ways that you can’t imagine. It’s taking a fundamental biological question that hasn’t been solved and working creatively towards solutions. This might well involve bringing other disciplines in, and that’s sometimes where you see the biggest advances.

What game-changing technology or impacts might we see from frontier research in the next 20 years?

Well, gene editing is already having major impacts and I think that will continue, using CRISPR and other systems in agriculture.  

We will also see transformation arising from interdisciplinary areas such as deep/machine learning, where we can generate knowledge from large data sets that we just couldn’t do before, millions of individuals compared to mere hundreds or thousands.

Copyright: National Institutes of Bioscience
Melanie with delegates at the National Institutes of Bioscience conference. Copyright: NIB

Then there are opportunities of connecting areas such as earth observation and agriculture. Satellite technology is starting to impact the way we manage our land and agricultural environments.

And personalised health: in 10 years will we all have our genomes and microbiomes sequenced? This could make a big difference not only for doctors prescribing medication tailored to the patient but also in opening up new opportunities to promote and maintain health.

People say that the UK has brilliant scientists but lacks entrepreneurial zeal. Is this true or a cliché?

I think it’s a bit of a cliché. A recent study showed we were #2 in the world for innovation. There are different metrics for this sort of thing, but we wouldn’t have got up there if we weren’t already really good. However, and now more than ever, we want to make sure there’s inward investment to grow UK industries.

As for entrepreneurship, I do think we have a culture of fear of failure. In the US it’s very different – if they don’t succeed they have another go! I think early-career researchers are more opportunistic there, so maybe these are the people BBSRC should be targeting rather than the more established researchers.

Innovate UK will be joining the seven Research Councils in the new UK Research and Innovation body. What challenges lie ahead?

The challenge ahead is to retain focus on our core business, which is supporting our research community, the best bioscience in the UK, and to continue to show leadership, while we go through a period of transition. But we need clarity on where the responsibilities are for the discipline-facing council’s vs the overarching body.

What opportunities does UK Research and Innovation bring for Research Councils such as BBSRC?

One thing I’m very much involved with is the new research and innovation grant funding service to replace our existing systems – which are creaking, to be fair. I look forward to a brave new world of an end-to-end digital service that is more intuitive and user friendly for researchers, our reviewers and us that is harmonised across all Research Councils and Innovate UK – which we can use to make decisions. It should also be interoperable, with a university interface for research outcomes for example. It will be game-changing if it can all come together.

Copyright: Science 4 Food
A quote tweeted from Melanie’s CE blog drew applause across the Twittersphere. Copyright: Twitter/Hootsuite

Following the Brexit vote in the EU referendum, what’s first up in your in-tray?

Ask yourself: what’s the first principle you’d want to agree?

We’ve looked across scientific organisations in the UK and found that in some institutions 30% of researchers are EU nationals. So the strength of the research base in the UK is completely integrated with Europe and being able to attract the best people – and we do. It’s so important for the strength of the research base that we continue to have free movement of research labour.

And we bring back to the UK more in research funds than we contribute – by a number of metrics we’re the most successful country in winning funding from H2020. When I saw the director of the European Research Council last year, Professor Pablo Amor, he said: “The UK is our best customer.”

Do you have a direct message to send to the UK science community, including EU researchers based in Britain?

It’s business as usual in the short term, and we welcome the Chancellor’s statement that UK scientists should continue to bid for competitive EU funds like H2020 while the UK remains a member of the EU, and that these funds will be guaranteed. But we understand researchers will have anxieties about Brexit.

The Research Councils can work with the UK Government to ensure that the key elements for world-class research in the UK are recognised in the EU negotiations. The government recognises that bioscience is one of the areas where we are truly world-leading, and we have to protect that.

When did you first realise you wanted a career in science?

I enjoyed the practical elements, the hands-on stuff. I remember in my ‘A’ level biology classes we had a vat full of large rodents, formalin-fixed, and I asked my biology teacher if there was a spare one I could take home! My mother banished me to the bottom of the garden, but having practised it really helped during my practical dissection exam.

I had a truly inspirational biology teacher and a wonderful chemistry teacher and they encouraged me to combine the two and study biochemistry, which was perfect for me. No-one in my family had been to university before – it was a whole new experience.

Copyright: Melanie Welham
Melanie with family on holiday in France. Copyright: M. Welham

How do you manage your work-life balance?

I have a 17-year-old daughter, and a 19-year old daughter, and a husband. My husband is a professional too, and my daughters are studying, so we accept that we’re all busy. But we try to eat together as much as possible – food is a great way to connect!

I like to get out on my bicycle as much as possible, and had a brilliant time this year watching a couple of days of the Tour de France with friends. It reminded me that we tackle the biggest journeys and challenges of our lives in stages – and inspired me to cycle up Mt Ventoux for the second time in a year! 

Tags: innovation people policy skills and training feature