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The leader of a British science organization urges for respectful disagreement following controversy over Michelle Donelan's allegation of defamation.
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The leader of a British science organization urges for respectful disagreement following controversy over Michelle Donelan’s allegation of defamation.

The leader of the UK’s governmental science organization involved in a defamation controversy has expressed the need for “innovative dissent” and a more elevated level of public conversation, with less division and finger-pointing between scientists and politicians.

Ottoline Leyser, CEO of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), emphasized the importance of communication among policymakers, scientists, and the general public in driving a shift towards a low-carbon economy. This is crucial in light of the high stakes for the planet and the role of science in promoting this transition.

“We must put in more effort to develop better environments for open discussions and differing opinions, promoting a culture of engaged debate where individuals actively listen to one another,” she stated during an interview. “We ought to foster settings where people feel at ease to face challenges and view disagreements as a positive aspect. This creates a research atmosphere of high quality. The fundamental element for success is the stimulation of creative disagreement.”

Leyser received criticism in the previous year from the science secretary, Michelle Donelan. On the social media site X, Donelan accused two academics, Prof Kate Sang from Heriot-Watt University and Kamna Patel from University College London, of holding extremist beliefs. Donelan expressed strong disapproval and anger towards their appointment to an expert advisory group for Research England, which is a part of UKRI.

The minister wrote a strongly-worded letter to Leyser, who conducted an investigation into the allegations. The inquiry concluded that there was no wrongdoing, but Sang filed a libel suit against Donelan. On Wednesday, while speaking to the Guardian, Leyser announced that a settlement had been reached in the libel case. As a part of the settlement, Donelan was required to issue an apology and retract her statements. It was also revealed that the taxpayer had covered the £15,000 expenses for Donelan’s legal defense.

Leyser’s apparent distress caused by this situation is evident, however she remains strong and does not let it affect her personally. She refers to her role as CEO as a “hat” that people are discussing.

How would she address the issue of division? “I am inclined to suggest banning Twitter,” she said humorously. “But that certainly is not the solution. It is crucial that a diverse range of voices are able to express themselves easily.”

She stated that there is a significant aspect in terms of the quality of public conversations, which has been greatly influenced by social media as a means of communication.

That could cause problems, she said. “Social media is great, it’s a very empowering thing, but it makes it easy for people’s anger to amplify.”

According to her, individuals in the spotlight should possess better debate skills and refrain from targeting specific people. Regardless of one’s profession or status, such as an academic, a businessperson, or a government official, everyone holds a position of privilege. In the realm of research and innovation, it is important to have the ability to partake in productive discussions and debates, even if there are disagreements.

Leyser recognized that the partnership between scientific investigation and the government agencies funding it will always be tense, but hopes that all parties involved can find more beneficial methods of addressing issues.

“As an organization, our main responsibility is to bridge the gap between government and the research and innovation sector. Our goal is to promote and sustain a thriving research and innovation system in the United Kingdom. This system should be inclusive and beneficial for all individuals involved,” she stated.

“Located in that central point, it is impossible not to become entangled in numerous stories of assigning fault and extreme perspectives. Certain members of the involved communities are extremely upset. I empathize with their emotions, but attempting to initiate change while consumed by anger is a challenging feat. It ultimately repels others.”

Leyser, a prominent biologist before she took on this role, will leave UKRI in June 2025 and the government is already seeking a successor. There have been strong hints that ministers are looking for a businessperson rather than a scientist this time. Some scientists have voiced concern that the government is attempting to fill the position with one of its supporters before the general election, in an echo of recent rows over other public appointments, including that of the chair of the Climate Change Committee.

Leyser did not reveal her stance on the decision. She stated, “It is not about whether you come from an academic research or business background, but rather how you approach the collaborative effort of innovation.” According to her, businesses also have a shared goal, but on the contrary, research in an academic setting is more open-ended since it is not confined to a specific objective and allows for creative thinking. This presents the possibility for more disruptive ideas.

She strongly believed that the focus of whoever takes over should be on the UK’s goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Approximately £800 million of UKRI’s total annual expenditure of around £8 billion is dedicated to environmentally-friendly goals, though the exact amount is difficult to determine due to the interconnections within research. Leyser recognizes great potential in using AI to aid in the shift towards a low-carbon society.

According to her, it is incorrect to believe that the UK has lost the chance to be a pioneer in low-carbon innovation. She stated that the vast potential and urgency for innovation in all aspects of reaching net zero means that there will be no missed opportunities, as numerous initiatives will be necessary for this goal to be achieved.

Source: theguardian.com