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Licence to govern: Eliza Manningham-Buller

31 May, 2011
Eliza Manningham-Buller

Eliza Manningham-Buller

Former Director-General of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller joined the Wellcome Trust in August 2008. Ruth Paget asked Eliza about her background and why she became a Governor after a lifetime of intelligence work.

In 1974, when the Cold War was at its height, Eliza Manningham-Buller chose to leave her teaching job and join MI5 – the UK’s national Security Service. She went on to lead the organisation and was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath for her work there. After retiring from MI5, she moved to the Trust and now sits on the Board of Governors.

Eliza Manningham-Buller read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Soon after graduating, she taught English for three years but says that although she “enjoyed the actual teaching”, she “didn’t enjoy the pressure of exams, the treadmill of O-Levels”. She was keen to do something else.

Eliza took up a position at MI5 in the middle of the Cold War. At the time espionage conducted by the Soviet bloc was one of the most serious threats the UK faced and relations between the two countries were at their most hostile.

During her 33 years in the Security Service, she saw the growing threat of terrorism in the UK, from the Provisional IRA in the 1980s and 1990s to the more recent emergence of al-Qaeda. Counterterrorism was the main focus of her career. When she first arrived at the Security Service there was the view that women were unsuitable for certain intelligence tasks, but “that was soon proved wrong”. She later became Deputy Director-General in 1997 and Director-General in 2002.

After leaving MI5 in 2007, she decided she “didn’t want to do a job that was a shadow of my former one, security of some sort”. Determined to do something stimulating and different, she was interested in the Trust and applied when a headhunter alerted her to the Governor vacancy. She was delighted to be appointed and feels “tremendously fortunate because the Trust is a very rewarding place to work”.

Discussing her time at the Security Service, she says: “You could well have an individual operation, which you believed successfully prevented a large number of deaths,” but at the Trust, “you are doing that every day but on a much bigger scale. Investing in science transforms the way medicine is delivered. To be part of that, however small a part, is a privilege.”

Eliza has always been interested in science, particularly biology, and is intrigued by many aspects of the Trust. The work at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute holds particular appeal as she is “fascinated by genetics” and currently sits on the Board of Directors.

Alongside her Governor role, she is vice chairman of the council of Imperial College London and an advisory board member for the Centre for Security and Resilience Studies, University College London. She is a crossbench life peer in the House of Lords and patron of a “very rewarding and successful small charity” called Street Kids International.

When she is not working, much of her life focuses on her family and friends. She enjoys music and theatre, and also has an unusual hobby: keeping sheep. She is “quite focused on that during the lambing season” in the early months of the year.

Eliza takes a broad view across all the Trust’s work and helps direct discussion, voicing her opinion on key elements in the agenda. With her background in making the right decisions at the right time, her strategic view should ensure the Trust progresses in the right direction.

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