Would you rather…

…chat to someone who led the M15 through the War on Terror, dealt with KGB spies in the eighties, and is currently Co-President of the Royal Institute of International Relations?


…chat to someone who led the world’s largest funder of scientific research through the pandemic, an organisation that actually saw it coming and, in 2017, along with Bill and Melinda Gates, set up CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations)?


Well, this is a “would you rather” that you don’t have to decide on, because one of our keynote speakers at Frontiers actually did both.

Eliza Manningham-Buller headed Britain’s Security Service (MI5) from 2002 to 2007, before serving as Chair of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest charitable funders of medical research. From counter-terrorism to pandemics, Eliza has led organisations through remarkable and pressurised times.


Eliza will initially be talking about “leadership in the age of uncertainty”.

“In my career I always had to make decisions on incomplete information. As a leader you don’t always have enough intelligence, and if you are crippled by having to wait for more data before you make a decision, it might be too late. The timing is as critical as what the decision is”.

Eliza reflects on leading two very different organisations, but which share many traits and goals in managing the unpredictable and trying to keep millions safe. She outlines how leaders’ priorities must change in order to keep pace with shifting demands from all stakeholders, and the constant emergence of new, often unimagined challenges. From existential threats such as conflicts, climate change and pandemics, to diversity and fairness, leaders have to consider an ever changing, complex landscape of priorities that influence both their organisation’s success and society’s future.

Eliza covers lessons in leadership from her career, drawing on her experience in the most demanding of environments to stress the need for leaders in any walk of life to engage in frank dialogue and invite criticism. 

“Do not try to be something you’re not; take responsibility for your team and remember that praising people takes seconds and can make an enormous difference. And don’t forget that humour can be found even in the most awful situations.”

Eliza will then take questions from the audience and it is your chance to ask whatever you like. 

Will you ask her about leadership and how to make decisions under pressure? Will you ask her about the ongoing effects of the pandemic? Or the risk of future pandemics? Or will you ask her about current conflicts and the mindsets of the protagonists involved?

Whatever you decide, Baroness Manningham-Buller is a fascinating engaging speaker who always has her finger on the pulse. 

Eliza originally trained as a teacher, then joined MI5 in her twenties, and early in her career, she worked on counter-espionage. During the 1980s she was reportedly one of only five people aware that Oleg Gordievsky, the deputy head of the KGB at the Soviet embassy in London, was actually a double agent.

She led MI5’s international counter-terrorism at the time of the Lockerbie bombing, and also served in a senior liaison post to Washington during the first Gulf War. She then led the newly created Irish counter-terrorism department. She was subsequently promoted to the Security Service’s Management Board where she was in charge, in succession, of surveillance and technical work, and the finance and IT branches. 

A natural leader, Eliza Manningham-Buller excelled in her roles at MI5, never forgetting the importance of accessibility, the human touch and humour.

She was appointed Deputy Director of the service in 1997, overseeing operational work and liaison with other intelligence and enforcement agencies. In 2002, she became Director General of MI5, the second woman to take on the role after Dame Stella Rimington. 

Her achievements included doubling the size of the Service, and transforming recruitment and development through the establishment of a training academy. She led the organization through 9/11 and 7/7, and under her direction, terror threat assessments were made public for the first time. Eliza resigned from MI5 in 2007 after 33 years of service, where she built a formidable reputation as a fiercely intelligent, sociable and driven individual. 

In 2008, she was appointed as an independent, crossbench Life Peer in the House of Lords and she has since served on various Parliamentary committees, including the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology.

In 2014 she was appointed to the Order of the Garter to acknowledge her contribution to national life. In 2017 Eliza devoted her attention to, in her own words `making a real difference to health’ – as the first woman to Chair the Wellcome Trust’s Board of Governors.

Upon her appointment, her priorities included vaccination, fighting drug resistance and research into the links between health, climate and environmental change. In 2017, with the aim of establishing a global vaccine-development fund, the Trust, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spearheaded the creation of CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). 

The initial goal of CEPI was to reduce the time to develop vaccines from 10 years to less than 12 months, and we saw how vital this was in the fight against COVID-19.  CEPI also helped set up COVAX to create equitable access to vaccines to those who need them, wherever they are in the world. The COVAX mantra is that in the age of COVID-19, nobody is safe until everybody is safe. 

Eliza stepped down from the Wellcome Trust in 2021 but is still a champion for diversity in science, and making it as easy as possible for people from different backgrounds to contribute. She is still an active member of the House of Lords and is currently co-president of The Royal Institute of International Affairs.