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Meet Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC's new Chief Executive

Copyright: Hemera Thinkstock

Following a long association with BBSRC boards and committees, Professor Jackie Hunter joins BBSRC staff as the new Chief Executive. Here we find out a little more about her.

What attracted you to the position; there must have been lots of offers from industry and you had a growing consultancy business?

Basically, I believe that BBSRC plays a pivotal role in shaping and driving exciting research and is essential for the maintenance of the UK's global reputation in bioscience and biotechnology. There is some fantastic science in BBSRC's portfolio that will be vital to the UK's economic recovery.

BBSRC is familiar territory; can you tell us about your involvement?

The community is certainly familiar. I have had many interactions with BBSRC in the past; including being a member of Council and a member of Strategy Board, as well as chairing grant committees and being a governor of The Babraham Institute. I knew there was a great wealth of talent within BBSRC and this was an important factor in my deciding to take the job.

You mentioned economic recovery; do you worry about cuts for BBSRC and bioscience?

The next few years will be crucial to the organisation both in terms of the science and the finances. I believe that I have the background to build on the strong past record of previous CEs to take the organisation forward in what might be challenging times.

BBSRC is doing a great job of demonstrating the impact of investment in bioscience and how research is vital to overcome major challenges that we face in the future. This is the era of bioscience and we must make the most of these opportunities.

Your background is in industry, why the change?

I think that saying I am from 'industry' is quite a simplistic view these days. The boundaries cross and collaboration is vital.

I am also quite academic for a non-academic. I did a PhD studying owl monkeys at London Zoo and my postdoctoral fellowship was under Cathy Wilson at St George's hospital medical school, on rodent reproductive behaviour. Subsequently my research was in the neurosciences and I have authored or co-authored over 140 peer-reviewed papers and co-edited several books. I am a fellow of the BPS and recently I was awarded a personal chair at St Georges in recognition of my scientific contribution. So I do have some academic credentials!

When did the transition to industry happen?

I really enjoyed my time at St George's, however, as I was completing my fellowship I decided that I wanted my research to be more directly applied to human health. Having asthma, I had seen at first-hand what a difference a drug can make to your health and I wanted to apply this in the neuroscience area. I got a job at Glaxo and started work on Alzheimer's disease and on a disease called scrapie, as a model of Alzheimer's.

I left Glaxo to work at Astra, then a Swedish company, Smithkline and French which then merged with Beecham to form Smithkline Beecham, until another merger with Glaxo took me full circle.

At GSK, I became head of an entrepreneurial business unit focussed on neurology and GI research and clinical development. I was responsible for approximately 350 people in UK, USA and Singapore and I was also site head for Harlow which at that time had about 3000 GSK staff. Therefore I have the management and financial experience that the CE of an organisation such as BBSRC needs.

As a senior vice president within GSK I was responsible for developing strategy, not only in my own therapeutic area but also across the whole organisation. This encompassed not just scientific strategy but also organisational, and so I can bring an important strategic perspective to BBSRC as well as experience of new ways of collaborating and driving innovation.

Do you have experience working with government?

I was a member of Sir John Beddington's panel which reviewed the use of scientific information in decision and policy making in BIS, and have worked alongside other sections of government, such as the Office for Life Sciences.

And the higher education sector?

I used to lecture on psychology and animal behaviour in my spare time, for both the University of London extra-mural department and the Open University. It was great to work with these students who were so keen to learn! I have also supervised PhD students which I greatly enjoyed. I have been a member of the Governing Council of Royal Holloway University of London and Bedford College, and I am now a member of the Council of University of Hertfordshire and therefore retain links with the higher education sector. I am a passionate believer in the importance of education and training.

Looking to the future, what is your vision for BBSRC?

It is still early days but I think there are five areas that are important to focus on. These are portfolio, partnerships, performance, perception and people.

These are all areas which have already been identified as important in the current strategic plan, so my intention is to expand and build on what has already been achieved. I do not see the need for any radical change.

In terms of portfolio, it is essential that BBSRC continues to fund excellent, basic science through responsive mode funding – it underpins everything else and should be a top priority. The key themes of agriculture and food security, biology underpinning health and industrial biotechnology and bioenergy will remain, but they will have to be flexible to accommodate emerging areas of focus. These are extremely exciting and dynamic times and priorities can change rapidly.

The strategic priorities for responsive mode funding include areas where BBSRC is uniquely placed to drive the agenda, such as synthetic biology. Critical to many of these strategic priorities will be the more effective coupling of the vast wealth of data sets with relevant biological expertise. BBSRC has a significant role to play in driving data sharing and its exploitation by researchers both through its funded-Institutes and the funding of projects such as ELIXIR.

BBSRC needs to continue to invest in the development of other new technologies and the training of researchers in relevant skills including those of mathematical modelling, chemistry, plant genetics and enzymology. Collaborative skills such as project management will also be required.

This leads neatly onto partnerships; many of the greatest challenges in biological science will be tackled most effectively by groups of people working together across boundaries – for example across academic institutes, disciplines, research councils and with industry. BBSRC has already developed some very effective partnership models with industry, such as the IPAs and LINK programme. However, we still need to encourage more extensive and diverse networks as well as collaborations with both traditional and non-traditional partners.

These partnerships will lead to new long-term relationships that can be a significant source of new ideas, enabling academics to access new tools and technologies, improving access to increased sources of funding, and providing routes to commercialisation.

In terms of performance, BBSRC is clearly doing an excellent job but more can be done to articulate achievements and impact to our key stakeholders. The perception of BBSRC is something I'm keen to enhance, through public engagement and more widely, as we have so many exciting stories to tell.

My focus on people is about maintaining the excellence that I've witnessed through my previous work with BBSRC and which has been clear in these first few weeks. I will also look to champion diversity as this is something I am also passionate about.

Do you see the 20th anniversary next year as a good opportunity for BBSRC?

We'll be pulling activities together under a common umbrella during the year. As mentioned earlier, it is important that BBSRC develops an even higher profile nationally and internationally, both within the scientific community and outside of it.

The impact of BBSRC science has been significant in the past but will be even more so in the future. BBSRC needs to ensure that there is a good understanding of the science that it supports and the value it creates.

What are you looking forward to most?

I am really looking forward to continuing my visits to all of the departments here in Swindon and getting to know everyone, as well as visiting partners over the coming months. However with lots of meetings in London I haven't been able to spend as much time here as I had hoped so please bear with me…

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