Leadership In Science Is All About Taking Ownership: Fiona Watt

“Leadership in science is a very broad church, and all about taking ownership. Science is in good shape when its leaders can acknowledge things that go wrong,” says Fiona Watt.

Leadership In Science Is All About Taking Ownership: Fiona Watt

How do you learn leadership skills as a researcher, and how well is science served by its current crop of leaders? These are just two of the questions asked of scientific leaders from a range of sectors and backgrounds in this five-part Working Scientist podcast series, all about leadership.

In this penultimate episode, stem cell biologist Fiona Watt tells Julie Gould that one of her leadership mantras is: “There is nothing wrong with being wrong,” and that science is in good shape if it can acknowledge this.

“Leadership in science is a very broad church, and all about taking ownership. Science is in good shape when its leaders can acknowledge things that go wrong,” says Fiona Watt.

Watt is director of EMBO, the European molecular biology organization, based in Heidelberg, Germany.

Her leadership positions before joining the organisation in 2022 include leading the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London.

In this role she was able to indulge an interest in improving scientists’ working environments as part of a redesign project of its labs, offices and core facilities. In 2018 Watt was appointed the first executive chair of the Medical Research Council, the UK funder.

She compares her own hands-on and largely self-taught leadership skills in science (helped by a strong network of female colleagues earlier in her career) with opportunities for young aspiring lab leaders today.

These include EMBO’s lab management course, which provides researchers on the cusp of independence with a trusting environment to learn about the common challenges group leaders are likely to face.

Watt also tells Julie Gould about the role of science leaders in articulating the need for government funding for science, but says that spending decisions should sit with them, and not with politicians.

Hi, it’s Judy Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to this series on the podcast, All About Leadership.

Each episode in this series explores leadership from a different perspective. We hear from academic leaders, research institute leaders, industry leaders, young leaders, as well as someone who studied leadership in science as well and what it really means.

I try to find out what these people think leadership is, how they got to these positions that they’re in, where they learnt their skills, and what they think of the leadership in science we have today.

Fiona Watt is a British stem cell biologist. Her work has focused on cell regeneration. Throughout her career, Fiona has held many positions of leadership in science, including being appointed as the first female executive chair of the Medical Research Council in the UK in 2018.

Now for the benefit of our non-UK listeners, the Medical Research Council, or MRC, as it is locally known, is the national funding body here that funds scientific research at the forefront of medical science.

Now, in early 2022, Fiona became the director of EMBO, the European molecular biology organization. And here, for the benefit of our non european listeners, EMBO is a not-for-profit organization based in Heidelberg, Germany, and it is devoted to excellence in the life sciences.

Funded by membership from around 30 countries, it supports research, it publishes journals, it awards postdoctoral fellowships to encourage mobility, and it offers training events, courses and workshops to support its researchers.

In this conversation, Fiona, and I talk about some of her different leadership roles in science. And she shares with us a little bit about what it’s like being the director of EMBO.

We also talk about where and how she learnt her leadership skills, what she thinks bad leadership looks like, and some of the trust issues that may crop up between the science leaders.

Clearly, from her history and background, we know that Fiona is an established leader, but I wanted to know, how did she learn her leadership skills?

Say, when you were an early career researcher, did you envisage yourself as the leader of an organization like EMBO? And if not, like, how did that happen? How did you get to where you are today?

Well, the answer is no. And I really, I think some people take a job because of the status. And some people take a job because of what they want to do. That’s probably true in all walks of life.

But throughout my career, I’ve been driven by the science. But I’ve always been interested in how science is done.

And after quite a few years working in a research institute, I became very interested in how you could make conditions better for younger scientists. And so that took me more into leadership roles within academia.

And I moved to King’s College London 10 years ago. And one of the real attractions of that job was having the ability to design space for research to be conducted.

Really, along the principles that where people sit, where offices are, where core facilities are, where the benches are.

If you pay attention to the space, you can make an environment which is more or less collegial, a more or less happy place for people to work.

Julie Gould: So that was part of your role at King’s College?

Fiona Watt:  Yeah, I mean, it was it was quite hard work, you know, speaking weekly to architects and all the adventures we had there.

I’ve stepped down from the centre that I set up. But when I think about what has made it a happy place to work for me, part of the answer is the physical space. And I don’t think scientists always think about that.

They might think about a nice atrium. You know, the way it looks from the outside, but I’ve worked in places where interactions between different groups were better or worse, and I think the physical space is important.

Julie Gould: How do you define leadership?

Fiona Watt: I’m glad you asked that question because I truly think a leader is someone who takes ownership or leadership of a particular topic in science, or a particular activity.

And if they’re a thought leader, then they will influence others by what they write and how they speak. If it’s an organization like EMBO, it’s important to be the public face of the organization as well.

But I think you can be a science leader without ever being head of a research group. You can be a pioneer in a field or a way of thinking. And it might not even become apparent for years that you were a leader. So I think you can be a leader without ever line managing anybody.

Julie Gould: Where did you learn your leadership skills in science? Like, was it just learning by doing? Or did you take courses? Or did you have a mentor? Or did you see people who were doing a fantastic job and thought: “Yes, I want to lead like they do.”

Fiona Watt: You know, when I was starting out, there were very few women scientists. And partly because of what I work on, most of the support that I had came from more senior women scientists who are based in the US. And it was really…it meant a lot to me that I wouldn’t see these women very often.

But understanding what they had gone through and how they helped one another, it was a big support for me. But I felt that I had no training. And so I think, because of that experience, I felt very much on my own, in control of my own career: “This is what I want to do now. And how am I going to do it?”

Julie Gould: So the skills that you have gained over time is more through self learning?

Fiona Watt: Yeah, I think so. And I know a lot of people, so you can sort of… you know, if you’re, if you’re observing people, you can pick up things that you like, or you would do it differently.

But I would say it’s completely different now. And one of the things that EMBO has run for many years is a lab management course, which is targeted at scientists just at the cusp of independence.

Because you get offered a job in science because you’re a great scientist, not because you’re a great leader.

And so helping those young people and everybody who’s been through my lab and done that course is better than me, because, you know, they’re in a trusting environment, they learn about the common challenges you face early on.

And of course, they stay in touch with one another. So it’s like an instant helpline when things things get tough.

Julie Gould: So I don’t know if you’ve done any of those like leadership style, you know, questionnaires or anything like that throughout your career. But do you have a leadership style in science? Does it have a particular name? Or, you know, how do you think of yourself as a leader?

Fiona Watt: I’ve done leadership courses, I’ve not undergone psychiatric tests to decide what kind of a leader I am. But I think I like to consult a lot before making a decision about something that needs to be done.

But then, at some point, you know, having achieved or not achieved consensus, it’s important to move forward with that.

I think it’s important that people are not frightened to tell you when you’re wrong. And I don’t, I think in a science context, you have to deeply respect the aspirations of the younger scientists in your care.

So having regular conversations about where they’re going, what they want to achieve, is very important.

And I think perhaps historically, scientists, if you decided not to stay in academia, that would be like, “Well, you’re out of the game.”

But it’s so different now. And everyone who is trained as a scientist has a different part to play in keeping tabs on that, making connections between the different sectors, I think makes sense stronger.

Julie Gould: So you’ve talked a little bit about about your leadership style, and what you think sort of makes good leadership. What do you think bad leadership looks like?

Fiona Watt: Well, I don’t like it when I feel that somebody in a leadership role is just in it for themselves, for the kudos, the glory, and it’s not doing anything for the organization.

I think it’s important that people are able to express conflicting opinions without it being personal. And one of my mantras in the lab is there’s nothing wrong with being wrong.

You know, you can do it, do the experiment, you can realize afterwards that this was not done correctly or the numbers are wrong, or the interpretation is wrong. But as long as you’re not frightened to say I was wrong, then science is in good shape.

Julie Gould: You have been in a position of leading a funding agency (MRC) leading research centres, of leading labs, now leading EMBO.

So you have seen science at its very highest level. And you have worked with people at the very highest levels of science, who are the decision makers, often, whether it comes to funding or policy, or strategies for direction of research and training and all of those things. Do you think that science and the scientific endeavour is served well, by its leaders?

Fiona Watt: I….So you can’t do science without money, right?

And I think it is for governments to decide how much money they should spend on science. I have no trouble with that being a political decision.

Because in some countries, it is the needs of their community that are so great that it wouldn’t make sense, to put a lot of money into science.

But if we’re talking about the UK, Germany, for example, I think the case that good science is good for the population at large, I feel ideally, that the decisions about how the money should be spent should, as far as possible, be made by science leaders, not by politicians.

I think there is a real trust issue here. And I saw it in MRC. I think scientists have a good reputation. Academics often don’t, because any discussion with government will quickly flip to “you should give more money to my type of science, and particularly to my university.”

And I don’t think that that is very high quality advice. That is more like lobbying.

And so actually, one of the things that I’m planning at EMBO is to convene a small group of people who I believe, have done it well in different countries, who are trusted advisors, so that we can be better at advising governments.

So I think we really have to try to understand: “How is all of this going to work?” And how can we ensure that the creativity and independence of scientists can flourish?

But yet, ultimately, at some point, there is a tangible benefit for society.

Julie Gould: Okay, so we’ve already touched on this a little bit when we talked about your career and how you took on more and more leadership positions, and I guess, more leadership positions with more responsibility as you move through your career.

But obviously, that starts when you’re, when you’re an early career researcher, and you said yourself, sometimes you can be a leader without having a giant group of people to be to be leading.

So do you think it is important for early career researchers to think about leadership? And if so, where would you advise them that they develop leadership skills, and why, and how?

Fiona Watt: So one thing I’d like to correct you on is that you talked about me taking more and more leadership roles.

However, at different points, I’ve stopped doing things because now I have three kids. I don’t have unlimited time, and I care about my own research.

So I think it’s not easy. But if you’re going to say yes to something new, you also have to stop doing something else.

And that can be quite, it’s sometimes quite scary, but it’s also really refreshing. But to go back to your question. I would actually start right at the beginning with PhD students.

And I think PhD students are not perceived to be a leader. You could take leadership responsibility in a particular project. It might be a science-art collaboration.

I would say “Be curious, explore lots of different opportunities.

Science is not a race. So it’s not a race to get simply a PhD first. And just using that time, speaking to people is very good.

Julie Gould: I’m curious to know, why did you take on on the job of being the director of EMBO?

Fiona Watt: I had…so I moved to King’s 10 years ago to set up the research centre there, I was completely taken by surprise when I was appointed as Executive Chair of the MRC. That was in 2018.

And that was a four year term, so ending in 2022. And I knew that I didn’t want to keep doing that.

Because, as my next set of experiments in the lab, I created a company which will provide a vehicle to do some safety studies in humans, so that wouldn’t be compatible with the MRC.

But then, when it comes to what job would you like, there’s so many jobs that I absolutely would not do, or have done already.

And so when EMBO came calling, I mean, what’s not to like? It’s International, it’s focused on young scientists, it’s about sharing data, whether publishing or open science initiatives, and to be back in a world class research institute in EMBL, was just fantastic.

And that’s, I just love that actually, it’s such a privilege to be able to do that.

Julie Gould: You are in a rather unique position to be, you know, the director of EMBO. What does that mean? What do you do? What is your day to day?

Fiona Watt: Well, one thing is that the director of EMBO must be active, an active scientist. So part of my working week is spent doing science, I’ve just established a new lab at EMBL Heidelberg.

And then otherwise, I started last January. So I would say I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out more about what what we’re doing.

It’s a really nice organization. But we’re constantly looking at each of the tasks that were responsible for, and making sure that we’re doing them as well as we possibly can.

To give you a couple of specific examples. Obviously, for the last two years, the courses and workshops have not been meeting physically in person.

So we’ve put a lot of effort into trying to support meeting organizers who want to run hybrid workshops.

The effect on our postdoctoral fellowships has been felt as well. And we’ve been able to use money to provide extensions, small extensions to the postdocs.

So we’ve been really trying to look at how we’re working, and do the best that we can to support our scientists.

Of course, just as the COVID cases were starting to stabilize, then there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And so we moved quite quickly to establish a list where scientists anywhere in the world could offer support for scientists who are displaced from Ukraine. So that has been an important effort as well, as a leader of such a big organization, to how IT strategy decisions made.

I see this role as…it’s really a responsibility to do what is best for the life science community.

But on the other hand, part of that responsibility is taking a look and saying, are we doing this as well as we can. Are there things that we did 10 years ago, which aren’t so important?

Now, to give you a very concrete example, we publish a number of journals. And we have to consider a future in which all of our journals, not just a subset, are open access.

So I see it very much as the leadership role is leading by consensus, but sometimes making connections and suggestions which will help move us forward.

We consult a lot, all of the time. All of our staff at EMBO are reaching out asking for advice, debating, but that doesn’t mean we just sort of tally the votes and say, “Oh, we’ll do that.” It does require an element of direction.

And of course, each director comes with a different background and may have different priorities.

Julie Gould: Hello, me again. Just a quick note to say thank you to Fiona Watt for taking the time to speak to me for this episode as part of the leadership series on Working Scientist.

And thanks, of course, also goes to you for listening. Every single listen means a lot to our team here at Nature Careers as we strive to share stories and advice that will ultimately help you navigate your career as a working scientist.

So if you found this episode or any of our other episodes useful, interesting or just enjoyable, then please leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts, but also take the opportunity to let us know what you would like to hear on this show.

This podcast is ultimately created for you so we would like to know what you would like to know. Alright, that’s it. Thanks for listening. I’m Judy Gould.