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Lord Jim O’Neill: The vaccine is a game-changer beyond the Covid crisis

About This Episode

This week, Michael is joined by Lord Jim O’Neill. As chief economist of Goldman Sachs he coined the BRICs – the now universally-recognised term for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. But his expertise doesn’t stop there. This is an economist with a view on how we live in a healthier world, having long been an advocate for the power of vaccines to tackle the world’s greatest health challenges. With the motto to ‘always try your best’, Lord O’Neill gives an insight into his journey – from the sliding doors moment that led to his career as an economist, to taking on a passion for tackling superbugs – as well as perspectives on the emerging economies of today, serving as a minister in government (and why it wasn’t for him),  his sporting heroes, and the power of scientific collaboration to bring a better future. He says: “The speed of vaccine development makes me think that if you get the right attention on a topic, the power of technology and science, and determination, we can crack all sorts of problems.”

Lord Jim O'Neill

Lord O’Neill is currently the vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, chairman of Chatham House and a member of Shelter Social Housing Commission. Since leaving government in September 2016, having been Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, Jim moved to the crossbenches of the House of Lords. He led an independent review into antimicrobial resistance (AMR) for David Cameron from late 2014 to September 2016, and remains focused on this challenge. Jim worked for Goldman Sachs from 1995 until April 2013, spending most of his time there as chief economist. He is also the creator of the acronym BRIC and has conducted much research about these and other emerging economies. Jim also served as a non-executive director of Manchester United before it returned to private ownership in 2005.

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Lockdown List

What is a book that has changed your life?

No one particular book, I wouldn’t say any book changed my life, but if really had to choose one, it would be my A-Level textbook on North America, that got me interested in the real world, and economics of the US, and travelling also. If I could answer a bit more laterally, the answer would have to be the Manchester Football Pink, which was published in my youth every Saturday night within 2 hours of matches finishing, and I couldn’t wait to get it and digest it thoroughly. My father even used to post it to me when I first moved to New York in 1985, so it was still going then. I think it ceased in the late 1980’s.

What are you watching in lockdown?

Queen’s Gambit, it is fantastic. Also watching the Steve McQueen five-parter on BBC1 on Sundays, but not quite sure about that! And I watched the whole of the Sopranos, finally, which I love, it is like a combination of Coronation Street and the Godfather!

What is your lockdown soundtrack?

I don’t have five lockdown tracks, in terms of new ones, I love listening to Paul Gambacino every Saturday, pick of the pops, running through the charts, for some reason, he has especially homed in on 1979 which is the year I met my wife at Surrey when I started my PHD, as well as my last year at Sheffield, and was especially memorable for music, therefore. That said, I love Dua Lipa’s new song, Levitated, and the group lockdown song, “Times Like These”, I really like that, although it does make me a bit teary.

In one sentence, describe your new normal

In many ways, I have no new normal, much of what I do is the same as before, as I often work from “home”. But I make sure even more than before, I do quite a lot of outdoor exercise.

Who is your biggest inspiration and why?

Not sure I have one in particular, but amongst most of the contenders, they all have something to do with Manchester United, any of, Sir Alex Ferguson, Dennis Law, George Best. Perhaps my secondary school geography teacher, John Doughty, who taught me the interest I developed in geography and indirectly, economics. I might be odd, but I don’t find any particular political figures as especially inspirational, although I thought it was quite cool when the US elected Obama. I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of presidents, prime ministers and leaders of other countries, past and present, and my usual reaction, is what on earth motivated them to become a national leader? In terms of economists, none either, although I do have fond memories of Rudy Dornbusch, who as well as being a great theoretician about international economics, seemed quite good fun, and didn’t take himself overly seriously.

What is your best tip for life ?

I have two. Firstly, as with my House of Lords motto, “always try your best”, and secondly, saying no to something is often the best answer to a request, so long as it is courteous.

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