Collaboration and Compassion: Soft Skills and Research excellence at the first Foundation Future Leaders Conference

  • 24 November 2020
  • General
  • Dr Fay Bound Alberti

In 2019, I was awarded one of the first UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships, to undertake historical research into the emotional and cultural history of face transplants ( As a historian of the body, emotions and medicine, my work has always been interdisciplinary, and I have worked outside academia, as a freelance writer, and a manager of funding programmes for the Arcadia Fund and the Wellcome Trust. My research has intersected with science, translational medicine, including discussions with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) on Open Access, and in funding Fellowships with the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).

None of that work compared to the access and insights I have gained through my role as a Foundation Future Leaders Fellow with the Foundation for Science and Technology, a position made possible by my UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. Over the course of the past year, and despite the restrictions brought by Covid-19, I have had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with a wide range of mid-career professionals from the worlds of academia, policy and industry, and to hear inspiring talks from some of the leaders in those fields. As an interdisciplinary scholar, and one of the few Fellows on the programme who is trained in the Humanities, these insights into how science might be translated into policy (and vice versa) have been hugely relevant to my own research into the history of innovative surgery, and to my understanding of the range of systems, languages and cultures that impact day to day policy and practice.  

Some of these themes came to the fore in the Foundation Future Leaders conference, held by the Foundation for Science and Technology between 17-19 November 2020. Open to all, and with an impressive line-up of speakers, the conference posed such timely and important questions as: 

How does Government use science? 
How does society encourage innovation in industry? 
What is the place of universities in tomorrow’s world? 

Covid-19 inevitably became a critical case study for many of these questions, since it has highlighted issues of trust, the relationship between scientists and government, and the hope that science will solve some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century – along with the tendency to turn to science in moments of crisis. This was highlighted on day 1, when Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, gave the first keynote of the conference. Chaired by the Rt Hon. Lord Willets, Chair of Foundation for Science and Technology, Sir Patrick noted that the role of Government Chief Scientific Advisor was created in the post-war period. Indeed, the first Chief Scientific Advisor was Solomon “Solly” Zuckerman, Baron Zuckerman, a zoologist and operational research pioneer, who advised the Allies on bombing strategy in World War Two. 

Lord Zukerman’s work is highly relevant to the age of Covid-19. He was concerned that the processes of science should be more transparent, and that the grand narratives of discovery distracted people from the complexities of how science was done, including how disagreements were settled and hoaxes debunked. Lord Zukerman is credited with making science central to government policy, and yet, as Sir Patrick observed, it is not yet so central as Economics. How to embed scientific knowledge into government at all levels, and in times of calm as well as crisis, is a challenge that still needs to be addressed. With reference to the Science Capability Review, 2019, Sir Patrick highlighted the variability of science activity and expenditure in the UK, as despite international impact, R&D budgets are falling. For sustained excellence, collaboration across academia, research and industry, and between public and private sectors, is critical to ensure the best science is available to governments. What ‘science’ means at least historically, is not straightforward. 

Humanities and social science research is also critical to how we address the UK’s challenges, not only to give value and humanity to our way of viewing the world, but also to understand the political, economic, social and cultural dynamics that inform how Covid-19 impacts on particular populations by race, gender and poverty, and how societies have responded to questions about masks, social distancing and even vaccines. The most important academic advances, a recent British Medical Journal article suggested, will come from better understanding human and societal behaviour to reduce viral transmission and maximise human safety. History, politics, philosophy, international relations, psychology, sociology and ethics are all important collaborative disciplines.  

Sir Patrick’s talk, and its implications for how we ‘do’ research resonated throughout the three days of the conference, as the keynotes given by Dr Loubna Bouarfa, Founder and CEO of Okra Technologies and Steve Rees, Vice-President for Discovery Biology, AstraZeneca, focused attention on questions of risk and failure. How do we create research cultures that reward failure as well as success? Attendees at the conference were keen to raise this question, as acknowledging failure is arguably only noble in retrospect, and once career stability has been achieved. Today’s climate of precarious careers, limited funding and a focus on ‘impact’, which can be notoriously difficult to define, changes the shape and nature of research itself, and makes it dangerous to make mistakes. Moreover, as Foundation Future Leaders Helen Dodd, Professor in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, and Dr Benjamin Lichman, Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of York, both observed in their presentations, not all research that is important is also impactful and translational. 

There are important questions for funders, then, in determining how to combine UK excellence, especially in the wake of Brexit, with sustaining healthy and innovative research cultures. On a broader level, how do we balance the desire (or need) to commercialise science with other interests, including social and ethical obligations? These are philosophical as well as pragmatic questions, for they allude to the kind of society we want to have, as well as the kind of science. This theme was emphasised by Anusha Shah, Director of Resilient Cities, Arcadis, who championed the needs for a systems approach, with investment in societal good necessary for private businesses as well as governments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this focus on accountability, and Sir Patrick’s initial and important framing, equality and diversity became a recurring theme throughout the conference. As Professor David Mba, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research & Enterprise), De Montfort University, put it, diversity is critical to address the needs of a diverse society. 

This is not target-hitting, but agenda-shaping. As the Royal Society has shown, diversity is essential to delivering excellence across the STEM subjects as ‘a diverse and inclusive scientific workforce draws from the widest range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences thereby maximising innovation and creativity in science for the benefit of humanity.’ More women, people with disabilities and people of colour in influential roles, and as research leaders, leads to higher revenue growth, better work satisfaction, more desire to innovate and higher employee retention. Yet the current picture of the UK scientific workforce shows there is a long way to go. Perhaps it is by tailoring opportunities for people who do not fit into traditional career pathways, as Professor Tim Bedford, Associate Principal at Strathclyde highlighted, that we might be able to break down barriers to research, and therefore to innovation and implementation. 

Learning from other disciplines, collaborating and crossing traditional disciplinary silos, as my own interdisciplinary research has shown, allows us to see things differently, and to reframe challenging questions in ways that provide new insights. The core themes that emerged during the first annual Foundation Future Leaders programme – innovation, accountability, collaboration and diversity – show that these principles transcend the fields and structures in which we work. And it is how we communicate those, as Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester and Chair of the Russell Group put it in her keynote, that makes all the difference. Not just in what we communicate, but how, and in what format, to make others feel listened to; to make them want to collaborate in challenging times and at difficult intersections. 

So, success in science lies not only in the big discoveries, as Baron Zuckerman recognised, but also in the so-called ‘soft skills’ that have traditionally been dismissed, or naturalised (and usually feminised): emotional intelligence, openness to feedback and a willingness to learn. These attributes are critical to build diversity and to ensure there is trust and ‘buy-in’ at all stage of the research and development process. In industry, academia and policy alike, it seems, there are more similarities than might initially appear in the pursuit of research excellence. I am grateful to the Foundation for Science and Technology for providing the opportunities, and networks, to help me see the challenges and prospects of my own research a little more clearly.

Dr Fay Bound Alberti, Reader in History, co-Director of the Centre for Global Health Histories and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of York; Foundation Future Leaders Fellow at the Foundation for Science and Technology.