It's a little over two years since I became director of the Wellcome Trust and our new strategic approach crystallises many of the conversations and discussions I’ve been having in those two years.
It is not about changing direction, but rather giving ourselves the means and the freedom to pursue faster progress towards our goal: improving health for everyone, because good health makes life better.
If better health is our constant guiding light, then ideas are the engines that keep us going. Ideas are vital to our work, just as they were for our founder, Henry Wellcome. He wanted to improve health, and was prepared to invest in high-risk ideas to achieve it, based on a platform of scientific research, rigorous evidence and understanding social and cultural contexts.
Henry's legacy is the Wellcome Trust, an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support an enviable breadth and depth of activities across science, research, medical innovation, the humanities and social sciences, and public engagement, helping to advance ideas with the potential to change the world.
We don't do it alone. By joining global partnerships around malaria, for example, we've helped to prevent 700 million cases since 2000 through the development, testing and use of artemisinin-based drugs, insecticide-treated bednets and social change.
Our work to enable new techniques preventing mitochondrial disease – techniques that the UK could be the first country to license after new legislation comes into effect later this month – followed many years of funding basic research by the scientists in Newcastle.
The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, one of the world's great centres for genetics, was established to contribute to the Human Genome Project, an international collaboration to understand the information of life.
These achievements also show the need to be flexible. We have to be able to invest in ideas for health on a global scale as well as exploring fundamental ideas in the laboratory; to take advantage of new opportunities and make faster progress where it's most needed; and to campaign for change so that more ideas reach their full potential.
Our new approach embeds this flexibility in a framework of Advancing ideas, Seizing opportunities and Driving reform. You can find out more about it, along with details of our initial priorities within it – they include drug-resistant infections, Our Planet, Our Health, scientific leadership in low- and middle-income countries, and improving diversity.
As well as identifying these initial priorities – more will be added over time – I'm delighted that we are also able to increase our funding for people who come to us with great ideas in any field related to health. Advancing ideas is the approach that has been so successful for us over the years, so the majority of our funding will always be available to respond to the best proposals received through our set of funding schemes, updated last year.
But now that the Wellcome Trust aims to spend £5 billion over the next five years, we have a responsibility to do more. That's why our framework includes Seizing opportunities and Driving reform – new mechanisms to provide concerted support at the right time to advance progress in our priority areas. We often take a long view and fund research that may not affect people's health for decades, but we also want to act quickly and effectively, such as when we funded health research into Ebola during the epidemic in 2014, including the successful vaccine trials.
Being flexible means that while our strategic approach and framework are constant, the details will change as goals are met and new priorities emerge. We will continue to consult within and beyond the Wellcome Trust's community of grantholders and partner organisations to identify priorities, and we will be open about changes and our reasons for making them.
Perhaps what excites me most about our new approach is the emphasis on ideas. We are going to have to really examine where great ideas come from. That's why diversity is one of our first priorities – being open to different perspectives changes us, makes us more creative, more innovative, and helps us to have more impact. I know there are many young researchers prepared to take risks with brilliant ideas and we are prepared to support them, not only for the quality of their ideas but also because they will be the next generation of research leaders.
Our strategic approach gives more freedom both to the Wellcome Trust and to the wider research community. I am confident that together, we can continue to make significant differences in the world. We might not always succeed, but we are committed to being as daring, open and ambitious as we can be in our efforts to improve health and make life better.