Director's Update: Thinking about our grant schemes
Opinion / Published: 16 July 2014
Nine months ago, I enjoyed the immense privilege of becoming Director of the Wellcome Trust. As a researcher who has long benefited from Trust funding for my own work, I already knew at first hand what a difference its support can make. What I had not fully appreciated was the breadth of outstanding research that the Wellcome Trust makes possible, in biomedical and clinical science, in humanities and social science, and in public engagement.
Over the past months, it has been fascinating to meet so many of the researchers we fund, and to learn how their work is helping to advance our mission. I am grateful to Sir Mark Walport and his leadership team for handing over such a remarkable research portfolio.
A change of leadership always offers an opportunity to take stock of an organisation's direction, and I was keen to ensure that the Trust did this effectively. We have thus spent a great deal of time recently thinking over how best to deliver the Wellcome Trust's vision and mission, as well as listening to the research community's views about what we already do well and what we could improve.
To that end, I have visited more than 40 research institutions that receive Wellcome Trust funding in the UK and internationally, holding town hall meetings with researchers at every career stage, as well as talking to senior management. The Trust also commissioned a major survey of more than 4,000 current, former and potential future grant-holders, and I have encouraged and received a great deal of further direct feedback from the people we fund and those we do not. We are extremely grateful to all who have taken part – your candid and constructive feedback has been invaluable.
These discussions have helped us to make some broad decisions about how best to develop the Wellcome Trust's funding framework. Our plans remain a work in progress, and I hope you will understand that we have not yet worked through the details of what they will mean for specific funding schemes. I thought though that the research community would find it helpful to know a little more now about our direction of travel.
I have been fortunate to inherit an excellent 10-year strategic plan for the Trust, launched in 2010, and there is no need for it to change in the immediate future. We remain committed to the vision and mission it set out, of advancing health by supporting bright minds and bright ideas in biomedical research and the medical humanities, and to the focus and challenge areas it identified for particular support. We also remain committed to our major grant schemes, including the Investigator Awards.
However, we do think that there are ways in which we should refresh our funding framework, and we have identified a few key areas in which we believe we can significantly improve our portfolio. We are especially keen to ensure that the Trust offers the best possible support to young people who will be the research leaders of the future, through an approach to funding that allows them to develop their ideas and head their own research teams.
This evolution in our support will therefore place particular emphasis on increasing the opportunities that we make available for early- and mid-career researchers. There will also be a major new scheme for collaborative research by teams, and a reformed approach to strategic awards for transformative work of importance to the mission of the Trust. We will have a new scheme for small, one-off seed grants to promote the development of innovative or high-risk research ideas, so that these can become competitive for larger awards. In addition, we are looking at our application processes, and at ensuring we do all we can to provide constructive feedback and support during and after the application and throughout the period of the award.
We will be developing the details of this refreshed approach over the coming months, and you can expect to hear more from us about the implications for specific funding schemes towards the end of the year. We expect the first awards under new and revised schemes to be made in the autumn of 2015.
I am sure you will appreciate that it is not yet possible for us to say precisely what will change and how, but you can be certain that we will communicate this fully as soon as we can, and in good time to plan ahead. We will continue to listen to your views as we develop these plans. Applications you are planning now will not be affected: many of our existing schemes will continue unaltered, and where schemes do change, it will be possible to move a pending application into the new framework.
These changes are taking place at a time when the Wellcome Trust's spending on research grants is increasing. We want to make sure that as we enhance the overall level of our funding, the right opportunities are available for all the many kinds of researchers and research teams who can help us to make a difference.