Exit strategy: Wellcome head welcomes fresh challenges

Wellcome Trust head looks back at a highly eventful decade in charge. Paul Jump reports

March 7, 2013

The directorship of the Wellcome Trust is often described as the most powerful job in British science, but Sir Mark Walport insisted that the skills of persuasion he has also cultivated during his decade in the role will serve him well when he takes over as the government’s chief scientific adviser next month.

“It is a very different role and that is one of the attractions, but it would be naive to think I can just press a button here and something happens,” he said in an interview with Times Higher Education to mark his departure from the trust at the end of the month.

But Sir Mark has certainly made a lot happen during his tenure. It is doubtful, for instance, that “gold” open access would be enjoying such strong support from the UK government if the trust had not consistently advocated that communications be viewed as just another research cost.

Sir Mark noted the opposition from some non-science disciplines to the current push for open access from Research Councils UK - whose policy is very similar to the trust’s. But he argued that such disciplines had “an enormous amount to gain” given the “restrictive” distribution of monographs. Set against researchers’ salaries, the cost of article fees would seem “marginal”, he said.

There are no immediate plans for eLife - the high-end journal launched by the trust in collaboration with two other global funders last year - to charge article fees, but Sir Mark expected it to do so when it was “flying”, and it was already receiving “extremely good” papers.

He dismissed the need for caution on the part of potential authors over the journal’s (current) lack of an impact factor, insisting that scientists were no longer judged by the “nonsense” of where they publish.

“Some things that are completely and utterly wrong are published in the very ‘best’ journals,” he said, a result not of “wickedness” but of methodological shortcomings. Some historical studies in human genetics, for instance, had involved too few participants to yield statistically rigorous results.

The challenge for funders was to make sure that scientists worked with sufficient “critical mass” and financial support to “robustly tackle critical questions”: this was why the trust had moved to providing longer, better-funded fellowships, he said.

Sir Mark’s personal highlights of his tenure included the trust’s consistent role in the “enormous advances” made in genome science, which are starting to have a clinical impact. He was also proud of having supported science education and revitalised clinical research careers.

Meanwhile, the Wellcome Collection’s visitor numbers since it was opened in 2007 have exceeded expectations by such a margin that an extension is being built.

The trust has also championed women in science on Sir Mark’s watch, but he admitted that more remained to be done. A forthcoming analysis reveals that three years after completing a Wellcome-funded PhD, only 46 per cent of women remain in academic research compared with 92 per cent of men.

He said the challenge for his successor - who is yet to be named - would be to maximise the impact leveraged by the trust’s endowment, which has grown from £9.6 billion to £15.6 billion during his tenure, despite spending of more than £5 billion.

“This is one of the most fantastic jobs in science in the world but all good things must come to an end,” he said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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