Investing in all our tomorrows

February 20, 1998

THE Wellcome Trust has always considered support of research training as an important part of its funding remit. PhD training awards have been provided, under a number of different guises, for almost the whole of its existence.

In 1987, the trust embarked on a more structured programme of PhD funding with the creation of its prize studentship scheme, which has so far supported more than 750 people. The trust initially broke with tradition and provided a stipend equivalent to the salary of a graduate research assistant of comparable age and experience, after tax. This ensured that students supported by the trust were lifted from a near-poverty level existence to earning a decent living wage.

The second stage in the evolution of trust studentships, in 1992, was to change from granting these through quotas to selected universities to inviting individuals who had already obtained long-term substantial research grant funding from the trust to nominate candidates who would work in their laboratories. This was to ensure that students were placed in a first-class research environment where they would be better supported in terms of the resources available, the quality of scientific mentorship and in the research training opportunities.

The trust's next innovation was establishing four-year PhD schemes in five universities, initially by funding a proposal from the department of physiology in the University of Liverpool. Under these special schemes, students spend a year acquiring research skills and sampling various types of research before choosing a supervisor and embarking on a project for a further three years. This more structured approach is popular with prospective students.

The most recent stage in this evolutionary process was for the trust to provide funds to cover the real costs for the research projects that its students undertake in their host laboratories. This is being introduced now and reflects the trust's recognition that as biomedical research becomes increasingly more expensive host laboratories are finding it increasingly difficult to underwrite the costs of the students' research work.

These changes in the trust's PhD training awards have all been in pursuit of its long-standing policy to fund fully all those individuals whom it supports. We have been able to implement these as a result of the substantial increase in the trust's research budget income over the same period. The trust recognises that it is in a highly privileged position and is sensitive to the difficulties that its practices may create for other funding agencies, for example the research councils, which are faced with budgets that are not growing in line with either the costs of or the opportunities in research, and to other, less well-endowed medical research charities. However, the trust believes that this is the correct way forward if the UK is to maintain its position in the forefront of medical research. By setting an example the trust also hopes that its actions will foster a wider recognition and acceptance of the reality that investment in research is necessarily expensive, if the product is to be first class and to compete on a world stage.

The trust additionally indirectly contributes to the numbers of UK PhD graduates through the salaries it provides for almost 450 research assistants on its project and programme grants. A significant proportion of these individuals are registered for a higher degree through the academic institution that employs them. Taking the numbers of trust PhD training award-holders and trust-funded research assistants together, the trust estimates that it is supporting 800 PhD trainees in biomedical science. It comes under considerable pressure from the academic community to increase its provision for PhD training, but is reluctant to since it feels that it would be irresponsible to encourage more and more individuals to embark on a career in academic research that offers such poor financial reward and so little long-term job security.

Of almost as much importance to the trust as the provision of financial resources for PhD students is that it should take appropriate steps to assess the outcomes of its funding. The trust is committed to providing the necessary and considerable resources involved in doing so. In the context of PhD training, this involves not only a careful audit of the PhD success of trust-funded students, but also a monitoring of their subsequent research careers. A preliminary analysis of outcome for a cohort of more than 100 trust prize students has revealed that more than 90 per cent were successful in obtaining a PhD and that, for the great majority, their first position was in scientific research. More than half remained in research posts up to six years after completing their PhD training. We believe it is essential to monitor the research careers of the individuals we support through our research career development programmes.

Dame Bridget Ogilvie is director of the Wellcome Trust.

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