Principal's welcome for The Bridge

On this page
Image of Professor Iain Gillespie
“I am excited at the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. I arrived in this role in the midst of the global pandemic, and have been hugely impressed at the way our community has responded to that, from helping the research efforts to tackle Covid-19 to managing the urgent pivot to mainly online provision of learning and teaching. ”

Professor Iain Gillespie, Principal & Vice-Chancellor  

The journey from Leith in Edinburgh to Dundee is around 60 miles, just over an hour by car. For Professor Iain Gillespie, however, it has been a lifetime covering thousands of miles around the globe which has brought him to the office of Principal and Vice-Chancellor. 

Iain was appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University in January 2021. Immediately prior to coming to Dundee he was Pro Vice Chancellor, Research and Enterprise at the University of Leicester. Preceding that his career had taken him from Beirut in the 1980s to the UK Cabinet Office, via Antarctica, deserts and the high mountain ranges.  

He is delighted to have returned to the east coast of Scotland. “This is very close to where my roots are,” said Iain. 

“More importantly though, what has attracted me to Dundee and the role of Principal is that I see the values of the University being a brilliant match to those I hold personally. 

“The theme of transformation is one which sits at the heart of what we do as a University. Teaching and higher education certainly shaped my own life.  

“My father spent his working life banging barrels together in a cooperage in Leith. University was a game changer for me compared to my family’s experiences. That is something we can still do for so many people by offering different routes into higher education, sharing knowledge and giving people the chance to develop to their full potential. That is why widening access and participation is a key part of what we do, and something we need to do at a global level, as well as within Scotland.” 

Iain went on to study for a PhD and postdoc at Edinburgh. “I am an environmental microbiologist by research background, with a particular focus on plant-microbial interactions,” he explained. 

“So the part of the University that is closest to my own beginning is Plant Sciences and the overlap with the James Hutton Institute. I have come full circle to some extent, although I haven’t done bench research in many years. Don’t let me anywhere near a lab!” 

His passion for impact led him to the American University in Beirut, where he was a Lecturer in the mid-to-late 1980s. “I was teaching botany and microbiology and working on conservation of the ancient Lebanese cedar forest, plus other projects that took me far and wide. It was certainly an interesting, and often challenging, time to be living and working in that area of the world, as it was the time of the Lebanese civil war. 

“That led me into some hair-raising situations including being sped through a PFLP-controlled village with a Syrian armoured escort, when I was told to lie on the floor of the vehicle with two soldiers on top of me to protect me should there be any shooting. Any journey across the country could involve incidents like that, crossing areas which were controlled by different factions. It was certainly a daunting environment in which to work but we managed to make a real difference to people as well as to the environment.” 

After a spell back in the UK in the fledgling biotech industry, he subsequently spent more than a decade in UK central government, with science-based roles in the Cabinet Office, and the Departments of Environment, of Trade and Industry, and of Health, and another ten years at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development leading work on science, technology and innovation. 

“In my time with OECD I travelled to every continent (except Antarctica, which came later) and developed the concept of a “Bioeconomy’, initially focused on placing environmental sustainability at the heart of what we now call green growth. We see the development of those ideas globally now with moves towards net zero economies, a vital step if we are to successfully tackle the issues we face with the climate emergency and to enable social and environmental sustainability. 

“I also did a lot of work on neglected and emerging diseases of the poor, bringing together international partners, crucially including leaders in Africa as well as the pharma industry and other organisations such as the World Health Organisation. The main focus was to drive more collaborative and open innovation to address global health needs which, of course, has been crucial to how society has responded to the COVID pandemic.  

“I played similar roles within the UK Government, where I was involved throughout the 1990s in the establishment of  the current UK research councils, developing regulation of biotechnology and human genetics and genomics, and advising on major issues such as the UK signing up to the Kyoto Protocol, which happened under the government of Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. Also under Mr Blair, I led for the government on their interaction with the pharma industry at a time of considerable challenge and change, including a round of mergers that kept GSK and Astra Zeneca headquartered in the UK.” 

He went to become Director of Science and Innovation at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK’s leading funder for environmental science, and was lead director for international research across all seven UK research councils that are  now part of UKRI.  

“Like other Principals, I sometimes struggle to stay connected to my academic roots, but I still do a lot of work around science policy and funding, including with Genome Canada, where I chair many of their Large Grant competitions across a variety of fields. And of course, I remain a Trustee of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. These for me remain exciting roles, as you are helping enable research and seeing the great impact it can have on society. 

“That has been something of a career `anchor’ for me, the impact research has on our society, on our environment. It is a bigger question than ever now as we emerge from COVID. Our core mission at Dundee is to “transform lives” and we have a fundamental role in ensuring our research, teaching and other activities improve our world and the lives and prospects of people everywhere. 

“This, and particularly the sustainability dimension, is something that is very much in the scope of my role as Principal, both in how we operate and in the impact we can make globally. 

“I am excited at the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. I arrived in this role in the midst of the global pandemic, and have been hugely impressed at the way our community has responded to that, from helping the research efforts to tackle Covid-19 to managing the urgent pivot to mainly online provision of learning and teaching. The efforts of staff and students have been tremendous. I must also give huge thanks to all of our alumni who generally supported our fundraising efforts around Covid.

“I am also looking forward to having more opportunities to engage with our alumni. I had strong connections to many of our alumni when I worked at Leicester and I want to build the same relationships here at Dundee. Our alumni are a vital part of our extended University community and we can work together to make a great impact around the world.”