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Where are the academic leaders of the future?

14 Apr, 2015
Participants in the 213-14 Leadership Programme

Participants in the 213-14 Leadership Programme

Traditionally, leadership development has been a concept associated with the corporate world, and one often met with scepticism in academic circles. In recent years the scientific sector has changed, and is becoming an increasingly complex business. Claire Fenton, Project Manager for the Wellcome Trust Research Leadership Development Programme, explains why we need to develop the leadership skills of academic research scientists and what the Wellcome Trust is doing about it…

As I head into St Pancras International to catch my train home in the evening, I continue to be taken aback by the sheer size of the building which has risen from the construction site behind the British Library. The Francis Crick Institute, set to become a world-class research centre and one of the most significant developments in UK biomedical science for a generation, is due to open in London in 2015.

Britain has long been at the forefront of scientific discovery, and existing clusters of scientific excellence, along with initiatives like the Francis Crick Institute place it in a strong position to continue to be so in the future.

Hand-in-hand with investments creating the best physical spaces for research, goes the requirement for scientific leaders who drive innovation and discovery today and tomorrow. How deep is the talent pool of academic visionaries to lead the centres and institutes into the future? And are they well enough equipped for the challenge? Investing in great buildings and research hubs is not enough. We also have to invest in the people who will work in them.

Delegates from the RLDP taking the controls of a BA flight simulator to explore exploring how personal reactions to stress impact on leadership persona.

Delegates from the RLDP taking the controls of a BA flight simulator to explore exploring how personal reactions to stress impact on leadership persona.

The majority of academic scientists entered into a research career because of their curiosity and desire to learn more about their subject of choice. Whilst many hoped that one day they would become a leader in their field, it is rare to find a principal investigator, head of department or institute director who began their scientific career with the dream of being a manager. Rather, their upward trajectory on the career path began as they had an exciting and logical vision for their science.

Leadership has often been interpreted as a decorative word for management, with training courses viewed as a waste of time that could be better spent in the lab.

However, increasing global collaboration, capacity building and advances in knowledge exchange, demand that scientific leaders possess a diverse and adaptable set of skills, which extends well beyond their ideas for their research. Leadership also requires more than just good management skills. An excellent leader should be able to set the agenda and inspire people to share and engage with their vision. They are responsible for enabling everyone underneath them to achieve that vision and fulfil their potential.

Leadership development in the scientific community is essential and the talent pool for research leadership is a global market. For the UK to continue to be internationally competitive in the long-term, we need to not only be able to attract the best, but also to nurture, develop and retain the next generation of research leaders.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Wellcome Trust recognises the importance of good leadership in advancing scientific knowledge, and as a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health, we take our responsibility seriously. That’s why in 2013, along with Monitor Deloitte Europe, we launched the Wellcome Trust Research Leadership Development Programme (RLDP), to address the need for leadership development in the academic sector.

The RLDP aims to develop the skills and capabilities of research leaders in the biomedical science, clinical and public health research communities. The programme explores three key elements of leadership: strategy and vision, managing people and leadership persona.

There is no single formula for what makes a good leader, so rather than being a standard classroom-based programme, participants are taken to diverse, new environments and challenged to investigate leadership excellence outside of research, before exploring how to thrive as a leader in the dynamic research environment.

Supporting and developing the research leaders of the future, and building a network of scientific leaders who can learn from and support each other, has the potential to greatly benefit the scientific community as a whole.

The Wellcome Trust Research Leadership Development Programme (RLDP) runs once a year and is aimed at those already in established leadership positions, or who are considering such a role as their next career move. To date, 24 research leaders have participated, with another 14 taking part in the 2015/16 course. Information regarding the nomination of candidates for the 2016/17 delivery will be sent out to universities later this year.

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