About a year and a half ago, I sat in one of Wellcome’s top-floor meeting rooms, looking towards the hills of north London, as we tried to decide whether to fund a street project in one of Nairobi’s largest slums. Its aim was to engage local children with health research.
It’s a particularly extreme example of the biggest challenge the team faced at the time. Our public engagement funding schemes encouraged a dazzling diversity of broad, flexible project-based approaches, but our overall ambition was to tackle systemic challenges. We were helping a thousand flowers to bloom, even as it became increasingly obvious that we also needed to grow some big, sturdy trees.
We sat a long way from some of the people and places our funding was there to benefit, like the kids in Nairobi. Because of this lack of context, we often didn’t know whether our support would be a one-off drop in the ocean without lasting impact, or a key part of a patchwork of initiatives that helped to achieve long-term change.
Peer review helped, of course, and we could contextualise many of the projects we funded. But even then, the sheer quantity of proposals we received meant that we couldn’t give each one the time it needed and deserved. And hundreds of good ideas weren’t funded simply because the competition was so high.
That’s why we changed our approach. We now aim to make fewer, bigger decisions, and to trust other organisations to distribute funding on Wellcome’s behalf.
Why other organisations are better placed to support researchers with public engagement
When other organisations understand both Wellcome’s public engagement strategy, and the needs and context of a particular community, we think that they will make better funding decisions than we can.
The responsibility of deciding the long-term changes we want to make, and which sectors are well-placed to achieve those changes, still sits with Wellcome.
To take one example: we used to get lots of requests to fund new podcasts. Not being podcast industry experts, it was hard for us to judge which teams had the potential to create compelling content for their audiences – and which would create expensively produced audio that nobody listened to.
Under our new approach, we teamed up with the British Podcast Awards (BPA) to investigate whether podcasts can connect people with health research. We saw that, as experts, the BPA was far better placed to find the best opportunities and decide which podcasts to support. They’ve now supported 11 exciting shows.
Some of the other organisations we’re working with include:
Nesta – offering grants for experiments in collective intelligence
Bethnal Green Ventures – helping the social enterprise sector connect their users with the benefits of academic research
British Science Association – developing a new funding scheme to improve the diversity and inclusiveness of public engagement with health research.
We’re also awarding funding directly to research institutions. The Scottish Public Engagement Network and the University of Oxford each have £500,000 of Wellcome funding to support their researchers with public engagement. We’re testing whether the resulting activity is better aligned with what the institution and local communities need, compared with what we at Wellcome may have thought looked most interesting.
And there’s more to come. Additional routes to Wellcome funding will be announced later this year – including one specifically focused on the entertainment sectors, via the newly-launched OKRE.
As well as supporting others, our new approach means we have more time and space to develop Wellcome-led public engagement with health research.
Last year, we tested whether large employers could help to engage employees with health research. The result was the Night Club, a ground-breaking collaboration between sleep scientists, artists, employees and large employers to better understand and improve conditions for shift workers.
Internationally, we’re working with others to explore whether public engagement can be used to reduce the spread of drug-resistant infections. We’re also beginning a major programme of work to improve vaccine uptake and confidence.
We’re excited about where this work can go
We’ll be talking more about these initiatives, and how partners can get involved, in the coming months.
We know we can’t do everything when it comes to involving and engaging the public with health research. What we can do is be smarter about how we make our decisions, including really focusing on the changes we want to make, and who is best placed to help us make them. The decision to fund youth engagement projects in Nairobi is no longer taken by Wellcome staff in London, but by our colleagues at the African Academy of Sciences in Kenya.
There’s more to do, but we believe this is a step in the right direction.