Director's update: Competition for new Wellcome Trust Centres

Director's Update: Competition for new Wellcome Trust Centres
Wellcome Director Jeremy Farrar
When the Wellcome Trust decides to lend its name to a project, person or place, it is a measure of how much we value their potential to advance our mission of improving health.

That means a lot to us and to the people who work with us – as I know from 18 years as Director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, which is the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programme in Vietnam.

Having such prominent support from Vietnam, the University and the Wellcome Trust helped us establish our unit's scientific reputation in studying infectious diseases, but it also bolstered our influence in making sure that the results of our research were used and applied in policy and clinical practice.

Now, as Director of the Wellcome Trust, I want to make sure that we continue using our name, our money and our support to empower fantastic groups of researchers to push themselves further and make even greater achievements.

Among the most highly prized research investments we make are in our Wellcome Trust Centres. We currently have eight in the UK, as well as four Centres of Excellence in Medical Engineering co-funded with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The dozen Wellcome-branded Centres are flagships in our portfolio, bringing together people from different disciplines and backgrounds with core support to do critical and innovative research in their fields.

Today, we have launched an open competition to invite applications to create new Centres across any and all research areas that the Wellcome Trust funds, including biomedical research, the medical humanities, social sciences and translational research. Our existing Centres will be able to apply for renewal as part of the same competition.

Our aim is to challenge and extend our portfolio of Centres so that they continue to be world-class and focused on clear, strategic goals to improve our understanding of health and medicine and to generate new knowledge and products that benefit people's health.

What makes a Wellcome Trust Centre?

Here are three examples across the range of our current funding. Each of them shows the added value that comes from being a Wellcome Trust Centre, as well as demonstrating the crucial importance of strong leadership, clear direction and the capacity to nurture talent.

  • The Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research in Newcastle, established in 2012, has shown the power of combining an impressive track record in basic research with the ambition to introduce new treatments to prevent mitochondrial diseases. They needed all their scientific might, as well as active engagement with patients, the public and politicians to develop and prove these new techniques, scientifically and ethically, and to ensure this year that legislation was introduced to enable them to be used in the UK – the first country in the world to allow this.
  • At the Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering in Leeds, one of our Centres of Excellence in Medical Engineering is dedicated to making the second 50 years of a person's life as comfortable as the first 50. Since getting funded in 2010, they have used our support to create an environment where mathematicians, physicists, engineers and medical researchers come together to do exploratory research and to translate that research by developing products with real health benefits for older people.
  • Established in 1993, the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford has been at the forefront of developing new statistical models for analysing and understanding genetics and, with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, was a leading partner in the Wellcome Trust Case-Control Consortium, which used genome-wide association studies to identify genes associated with specific diseases. Crucial to the Centre's success is that it has always had a vision for its work that is current, relevant and ambitious. This gives researchers at every career stage confidence that their work has the potential to transform the field of genetics and its role in medicine.

All of our Centres can point to success, measured against the goals set when they were established. But it is important that simply keeping going as a Centre for as long as possible is not a marker of success. Centres have defined goals and objectives: if they achieve them, or if they cannot for any reason, the rationale for funding a particular Centre will change, and it may no longer be as competitive when considered against fresh ideas from other groups.

This is why we have decided to include our existing Centres in the open competition. As well as setting a benchmark for any new Centres we fund, they will also have to demonstrate that they continue to meet that benchmark themselves – that their aims are still relevant and strong, and that they have the direction, capacity and leadership to achieve them.

The nature of the competition makes it possible that an existing Centre will not continue to be funded as a result. This would not be to say that it had failed, but that the context it operates in had changed.

What are we looking for?

The kind of achievements made in our Centres would just not be possible in standard university departments. Wellcome Trust Centres are innovative and interdisciplinary by design. Their leaders, guided by a strong vision, have to consider the different types of researchers needed to achieve their aims – perhaps types of researcher who don't usually work together.

They need to recruit and develop those researchers, facilitate interaction and collaboration, and inspire them in the pursuit of genuinely ambitious goals. Everyone working in our Centres should feel they have the opportunity, the environment and the support to transform their field – or even to establish a new one.

Opening up the competition for Wellcome Trust Centres in this way is a hugely exciting opportunity. We are not dictating what we want to fund in this call – it is up to the research community to come and tell us where there is the potential to form collaborations that can change our perspective, our understanding or the way we do medicine and biomedical research. If you have that vision, come and talk to us.