Dr Mark Downs: With one voice we are so much stronger


By Anna Rivers, Marketing Manager



Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive of The Royal Society of Biology (RSB), was this year’s winner of arguably the most prestigious award within the professional body, association and membership sector: the memcom 2018 Louis Armstrong CEO Leadership Award.


We caught up with Mark recently about his career background, main focuses for the RSB, the importance of partnerships, key learnings about engaging with current and future members and lessons he has learnt in his current role as chief executive at the RSB.



“Organisations are all about people and are more than the sum of the individuals. The growth and successes of the RSB have been enormously rewarding but there have also been challenges along the way. I have been fortunate to work with so many talented staff and trustee colleagues who have ensured the Society took opportunities and solved problems. I hope this award can be seen as a reflection of their endeavours”, Mark Downs


The Royal Society of Biology (RSB) is a unifying voice for biology, representing a diverse membership of individuals, learned societies and other organisations, and provides (for Government and other policy makers) a distinct point of access to authoritative, independent, and evidence-based opinion, representative of the widest range of bioscience disciplines.


Mark joined the Royal Society of Biology as CEO from the major charity for hearing health and deafness, RNID, where he was the Executive director for Science and Enterprise (2004-2009) leading a major retail operation, service deliver social enterprise and the biomedical and technology research programme. Mark joined RNID after spending three years as the UK’s lead policy official for negotiating and implementing a range of far reaching, EU driven, business related environmental legislation at the Department of Trade and Industry. He previously spent five years in the Diplomatic Service based at the British Embassy in Tokyo as First Secretary (Trade Policy) with responsibility for all UK-Japan bilateral and multilateral trade relations. He focused, in particular, on the medical, environmental, telecommunications and legal services markets.


Mark has been Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Biology since its inception in 2009 (following the merger of two pre-existing organisations). Under his stewardship – with able direction and thoughtful leadership – the considerable achievements of the RSB have been across a very broad front, with wide benefit beyond the Society itself. Individual membership has increased by 50% since Mark joined, organisation membership and annual turnover has grown significantly, and a Royal title was awarded in May 2015 by the Queen on advice of ministers.


“The biggest challenges lying ahead for professional bodies, in general, are staying relevant and adapting to social and cultural evolution. This requires different approaches to membership and public engagement and recognising segmentation within membership. Membership is at the heart of our organisation. We want to ensure our individual members and organisational members continue to feel part of the bioscience family and value their membership. Hence the new three-year plan, currently in development, is looking closely at the support we provide, talking to our members for input. We also want to more clearly demonstrate “Impact” for the work we undertake for both the public benefit and professional development. We are looking at better ways of showing this. Later in 2019 we celebrate our 10th birthday since merger and will be looking to launch a range of specific activity and celebration.”


The RSB hosts special-interest groups covering areas as diverse as animal science, natural capital and pedagogical research whilst the Society has developed a range of specialist committees and task and finish groups to support its proactive work in areas such as reform of the 5-19 biology curriculum. There are also 17 volunteer-led branches across the UK to help ensure the Society engages locally and regionally. Clearly partnerships are key to all these areas of the Society’s work and more:


“In almost all our work we have partners. With the ever-growing interdisciplinary nature of research and study in science, the RSB needs to work closely with colleagues in chemistry, physics and maths and the whole bioscience community – from ecology to molecular science – and needs to have a common agenda on central issues such as funding, teaching quality, bioethics and curriculum design. We currently organise three major pan-science events in Westminster each year, including the largest single science event with nearly 200 attendees, on behalf of the whole science community. In short, the RSB agenda is usually fully in accordance with the whole science community and with one voice we are so much stronger. We work in similar ways in the devolved administrations where we support the leading role of the Royal Society of Chemistry, with RSB as the ‘junior partner’ “.


A good example of the pan-science parliamentary work is Voice of the Future in Westminster, as part of Science Week each year, where young scientists ‘become’ the Science & Technology Select Committee for a session and call Ministers and MPs as witnesses. This event is unique to the UK.


Advising Government, Parliament and other national and international bodies, the RSB has influenced policy by submitting almost 150 detailed policy positions since its inception. As part of this, the Society submits 10 to 20 consultation responses per annum, covering topics as diverse as genome editing and the Industrial Strategy.


Offering professional support and seeking employer engagement, the RSB has been responsible for the accreditation of bioscience degree courses since October 2012 with 50% of UK universities and over 500 degree programmes now covered. The Society delivers many training courses, has launched a bespoke online training portal, and offers a range of specialist professional registers. It also engages the public and schools with competitions and national and regional RSB public engagement and training events. In 2017 over 60,000 school children participated in their on-line academic competitions.


“We continue to learn day to day. And we still need to improve significantly in the offering for our youngest members in particular: more video content, social media for example. But engagement can work through schools, provided teachers champion the activity. For that to work involvement needs to be visibly beneficial – kudos, learning opportunity, student CV enhancement and a simple online process. The RSB online competitions organised by our special interest group – UK Biology Competitions – attracted over 60,000 school students this year through three age ranges.”


We asked Mark what his top three lessons in leadership may be:


  1. Gaining personal experience across different sectors and roles.

    The academic, private, public and voluntary sectors all have good practice that can transfer but are often seen as mutually exclusive. Equally, gaining experience on-the-ground of how colleagues work and the challenges they face can be eye opening, even if through brief exposure. In my last senior role, spending a day answering telephones in the customer service team and a day working in the warehouse for the retail business built lasting working relationships and brought a much better understanding of the business.


  1. Getting the governance right

    Good governance is essential but in doing so organisations have to remain nimble. Governance must be an enabler not a barrier to real-world delivery.


  1. Understanding the figures

    Relying on the advice of professional specialist staff is always going to be essential. But, getting to grips with the detail of the finances of the organisation is worth it, not just to understand the bottom line but also how resource flows and to help identify opportunities.


We would like to extend our thanks to Mark and his team for their time in providing all the background information about both the RSB and Mark’s career and also for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece.