Director's Update: Looking forward to 2015
Opinion / Published: 13 January 2015
A break over New Year is always a wonderful time to reflect on the past 12 months and think forward to the opportunities for the coming year. I'd like to take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and express my hopes for the coming year.
Reflections on 2014
2014 brought with it the very sad loss of one of the truly great figures in global health and a good personal friend – Joep Lange – who was on flight MH17 that was shot down over Ukraine, along with a number of others attending the HIV Congress in Australia.
It was also the year we marked and honoured the memory of two other greats who in different ways contributed so much to the Wellcome Trust and to global health – Fred Sanger and Peter Williams.
From a health perspective the dominant issue of 2014 has been the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa. With over 20,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths this is by a very long way the worst Ebola outbreak in history and its impact is being felt beyond Ebola itself.
My prediction is that the peak of the epidemic may be reached this month and as a result of the massive national and international efforts, the number of new infections will start to decline. The tail of the epidemic will continue for many months and I doubt if we will be able to declare the epidemic 'over' until late 2015 or into 2016.
The Wellcome Trust can be enormously proud of the role it has played at the forefront of the response to the epidemic. The Trust was one of the first to recognise that this epidemic was different to all previous outbreaks and the first to galvanise critical research in ethics, epidemiology, anthropology, social sciences, mapping, communication, diagnostics, anti-viral drugs and vaccines.
The fruits of this hard work are now being felt with the research supported by the Trust having all started and directly impacting on this epidemic and inevitable future epidemics of Ebola.
Thankfully there were a large number of positive events to counter the troubling news that so often dominates the news, such as the confirmation of major and sustained reductions in mortality from malaria (which the Trust has played a central role in).
It would be impossible to include here on all the remarkable Wellcome Trust activities of 2014, but a few personal highlights include our joint-funding of an independent review of antimicrobial resistance, the opening of 'The Institute of Sexology' at the Wellcome Collection, and having the honour of representing the Trust at the memorable Nobel ceremony to honour the work of John O'Keefe and his co-laureates May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser.
We also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust-KEMRI Programme in Kilifi, Kenya, began the next phase in the development of the Hinxton campus with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and European Bioinformatics Institute, and renewed our Institutional Strategic Support Funding. I also enjoyed answering questions posed by members of the online forum Mumsnet during a 'live-chat' about Ebola.
I’m really pleased that the annual results from our investment portfolio will enable us to continue to have a major impact on human and animal health, and we hope to give out an extra £1 billion in the next five years, as compared to the previous five year period.
We were also delighted to welcome two new members of the Board of Governors, Bryan Grenfell and Tobias Bonhoeffer, but one of my fondest memories of 2014 is of sitting in a hot steamy Sierra Leone hospital Skype-ing in to the Wellcome Trust Christmas party!
Looking forward to 2015
I hope 2015 will be the year when we bring an end to the devastating Ebola epidemic and put in place more robust global systems for responding to the inevitable future epidemics of Ebola and other (re-)emerging infections (including antimicrobial resistance).
There are many reasons to look forward to 2015 with real excitement. The fundamental change in our approach to funding, with a new focus on Strategy, Teams, People (with an emphasis on youth and diversity), Places, Resources and Seeds marks a major shift in the way the Wellcome Trust supports research.
I am very keen in 2015 to broaden and deepen our investment in people, identifying and developing talent and leadership both internally within the Trust and in our external community to give people the confidence, space and support to take us all to the next level.
The full 'reopening' of the Wellcome Collection will be a huge event, the previews have already been stellar and the excitement within the Collection, the Trust and the community is palpable.
Our work in 'Sustaining Health' will gather momentum in 2015 as the initial awards bear fruit and the Trust team works to define how we can best contribute to this critical topic.
I am particularly looking forward to the joint research initiative with two other great European Foundations – the Volkswagen Foundation Germany and the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond Sweden. I am hoping this will help us reach out to continental Europe and broaden our international reach. In a similar vein, the visit with the Board of Governors to Denmark and Sweden in February, and contributing the World Economic Forum Davos, will also help us gain a perspective on how colleagues in other countries achieve real impact through research.
2015 will also mark the formal hand over of The Francis Crick Institute and the opening of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour. It will also see the first awards made under the DELTAS scheme, which aims to develop research excellence in Africa.
We are hopeful that the UK parliament will vote through new regulations that will allow important work on mitochondrial donation techniques to continue, and enable the HFEA to issue individual licenses so that this research can benefit patients. We continue to support calls to ensure that EU data regulation maintains both data privacy and carefully managed exceptions to allow essential health research to continue.
I will continue to visit institutions in the UK and internationally to listen to our community and learn from their experiences – especially reaching out to places and disciplines we have not traditionally funded. I look forward to hearing more about everyone's work and ideas for how we can do things even better in the future, and to engaging researchers to help frame our strategic priorities for the years ahead.
The Wellcome Trust is a unique and inspirational place to work. It's creative, influential, quirky, and we are bringing about change that is making a real difference to people's lives. I am very proud to be a part of it and very much look forward to the coming year.
Very best wishes for 2015 – Jeremy