Case study

Mary Dixon-Woods

Mary Dixon-WoodsRAND Professor of Health Services Research, University of CambridgeInvestigator Awards in Humanities and Social Science

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

The main thing that attracted me to the scheme was that you didn’t have to specify precisely what you were going to do in advance. Essentially, Wellcome funds the person and their vision and ideas, rather than funding a project with defined outcomes and deliverables. 

That was enormously attractive because it gave me the opportunity to be creative and follow my nose when something new emerged.

Another thing was the length of funding. My award is over six years, which has given me the opportunity to develop my work in depth.

What aspects of the Investigator Award funding are most useful to you?

The flexibility and freedom is just amazing. My team have been able to do so much so fast because of the liberation.

Several of our projects have arisen from changes in the health policy landscape. If someone has come to us with a good idea, we’ve been able to say ‘we can help solve this problem’, without wasting six months having to look for funding. 

On a practical level, I’ve been able to offer people much longer contracts – allowing them to develop and grow as researchers. 

I’m very committed to supporting and investing in early-career researchers and health professionals, and the funding has meant I can do that. For example, my colleague Emmilie Aveling spent the first two years of the award mostly in Africa, studying safety and quality in low-income contexts. 

What do you think about Wellcome’s application process? 

The application process was relatively straightforward. I thought it was good that you could just give an indication of the budget and didn’t have to go to town on the costing specifics. Anyone who’s put a research grant together will tell you that you can spend a huge amount of time on the costings. 

The interview was appropriately challenging. The members of the panel were from different backgrounds, so a lot of it was about being able to communicate clearly and effectively. 

The interview was very hard, but also good because it was such a searching process. After it was over, I felt completely stunned. I remember walking back to the station and then just sitting there and having a cup of tea before I could get on the train.

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Going for vision rather than a series of projects is important, because this is very unusual funding. I think Wellcome are interested in investing in something they can’t fully predict or control. But that’s not to say your vision should be whimsical – it’s got to be clear and have an important motivation at its heart. Mine was that ultimately there have to be benefits for patients and the public. 

Being able to demonstrate your track record is important. Investigator Awards are for people who’ve had exceptional achievements for their career stage. It’s probably not right for you if you haven’t yet built up that kind of profile – there are lots of other schemes which might be more suitable.

I’d also suggest some practical things when you’re preparing. Get as many people as you can to read your application and make sure it’s a really coherent piece of work demonstrating how you’re going to deepen or expand the field. Show you’re at the forefront of the literature. 

You need your proposal to show it’s an important question to answer, it’s answerable, you’re the right person to answer it and you’ve asked for the right kinds of resources to pull it off. 

Career path

Career summary

  • 2016present RAND Professor of Health Services Research, University of Cambridge
  • 2007–2016 Professor of Medical Sociology, Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester
  • 2012present Wellcome Trust Investigator Award in Humanities and Social Science
  • 2012present Deputy Editor-in-Chief, BMJ Quality and Safety
  • 1994-2002 Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Leicester
  • 1997 DPhil Social Studies, Nuffield College, University of Oxford
  • 1991 MSc Social Research and Social Policy, Linacre College, University of Oxford
  • 19891990 Project Leader in Instructional Design, Centre for New Technologies in Education, Dublin City University
  • 1990 Graduate Diploma Statistics, Trinity College Dublin
  • 1988 BA Communications Studies, Dublin City University
  • 19851989 Executive Officer, Civil Service, Dublin

What have been the defining moments in your career so far?

I spent the first part of my career as a civil servant. I didn’t realise how valuable the training was at the time, but it sparked my interest in the science behind policies. So finding the evidence, interpreting it and turning it into something actionable. 

An important turning point for me was getting an ESRC studentship. It’s one of the reasons I’m so keen on helping early-career researchers. Without it, I probably would have continued in the civil service or had a completely different career.

I went to Oxford for my postgraduate training, and that was a tremendous experience. Initially, I thought my career was going to be in the sociology of education. But I met Professor Ray Fitzpatrick on one of my Master’s courses and he was completely inspirational. I was fascinated – I hung on every word of the tutorials. After Oxford, I got a post at Leicester, where I worked for 22 years. 

I’ve had tremendous opportunities and met lots of fantastic collaborators and mentors along the way. Now I’m keen to pay that back and make sure other people have the same kind of opportunities.

Research and public engagement

What’s the key question you’re addressing?

I’m looking at the science and ethics of making things better in healthcare organisation and delivery.

How are you going about answering this question?

My research team has a portfolio of different projects – some big, some small. 

A fabulous example is variation in the quality of maternity care across the UK. We identified an extremely high-performing maternity unit in Bristol. By having the flexibility associated with our Wellcome funding, we were able to go and study them. We weren’t tied to anyone else’s agenda but could just go and say, ‘we want to learn as much as we can’. We think it will really help in the long-term to help keep mothers and babies safe.

I have a wonderful PhD student – Carmen Eynon Soto – who’s looking at how best to support families caring for children who are using invasive devices, like gastronomies or central lines, at home. Fifteen years ago many of these children would have been looked after in hospital. Now parents are taking on this role, doing all that work themselves. 

We’ve also set up a link between ourselves and the NHS in Leicestershire. It’s been a great vehicle for facilitating all kinds of relationships that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. We’ve used it as a way of:

There’s a real sense of creativity and excitement about this work, but there’s a discipline to it. We don’t take on anything unless we’re absolutely clear that it’s an important question to answer. 

What public engagement or outreach work do you do?

We involve patients in the design of most of our studies. A lot of what I’d call public engagement, we’ve been actually doing with health professionals – in many ways they are a polity. We’re trying to show that our work could be useful to them. It’s been a really important area of our activity.

Last year I did over 35 talks in the USA. There’s a huge appetite there for what we’re doing. I had to turn down some invitations as there were just so many. Similarly in the UK, I think I’ve given 80 talks since the project began. 

Another great thing has been the opportunity for policy influence. Within the first year of getting the award I was appointed to the National Advisory Group for the Safety of Patients in England, led by Don Berwick. Our work was widely cited in the government’s response to the Francis Inquiry on Mid Staffordshire. I was also a member of the US National Patient Safety Foundation group on patient safety.

I’m now on the National Advisory Group on Health Information Technology in England. I’m going to be able to bring the work I’ve been doing as part of the Investigator Award to bear on that. It’s been a real privilege to be involved in the formal policy end of things. 

More information

Mary will be leading the new Improvement Research Institute in Cambridge, which received £40m funding from The Health Foundation. The vision of the new institute is based on Mary's research as part of her Investigator Award in Humanities and Social Science.

Find out more about Mary's work on the University of Cambridge website.