Could a non-scientist lead the MRC, Wellcome, or Royal Society in the future?

A little while ago I stumbled across a survey which said that 70% of the leaders of FTSE 100 companies had an accountancy background. In other words they were not necessarily bloodied in, or married to, their organisations core business. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Their number one priority is to deliver the right numbers for shareholders and the stock market.

It got me thinking anyway. Could a non-scientist lead the Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), or even one of our esteemed Academies one day? And, if not, why not? After all, the No1 priority of all these organisations is public benefit. So why not have a member of the public as leader?

A casual observer might also be forgiven for concluding that when science organisations have stumbled into problems the issue has often not been a lack of science expertise. The real issue has been a lack of leadership skills: financial acumen; the ability to build relationships and; poor communications. A lack of recognition that these positions are more and more ‘political.’ Perhaps that is the tale of the unfortunate recent history of the Royal Institution for instance, I don’t know?

Closer to home it is worthwhile reflecting that there continues to be a proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ which is preventing patients and the public from being co-applicants, reaching the boardrooms, or leading health research organisations.

In fact my impression from reviewing many research applications now is that our governance model for public involvement has got stuck on creating PPI ‘advisory’ or ‘steering groups’ like a needle on vinyl. Off-centre in terms of how the organisation is run they are in what scientists might call a controlled environment. I think we all know what that means from a public and patient perspective!

Yesterday I spoke at two events hosted by the West Midlands CLRN and Northwest London CLAHRC respectively. There was no shortage of ‘lay leaders’ in those rooms. In fact, in the case of the former the Director, Andrew Worrell, has no science background at all. But he was voted in unanimously by both his public and science colleagues. He remains the exception to the rule I am afraid.

Perhaps as our Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), CLAHRCs and Clinical Research Networks go through their various changes in the next year or so, we should be setting an expectation that they have a plan for public involvement in their governance.

As for the Royal Society, MRC and others I suspect we will still be waiting in another 100 years. That might be the right decision. But it would be a shame if they had not at least asked ‘what if..’ and considered the benefits as well as the downside.

Asking ‘What if’ is not a bad way to begin shedding the cobwebs in any organisation.

One thought on “Could a non-scientist lead the MRC, Wellcome, or Royal Society in the future?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s