Research intelligence - A Wellcome break from the funding treadmill

Trust's long-term awards will put scientists, not their proposals, first. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 12, 2009

The Wellcome Trust - the UK's largest medical-research charity - is to overhaul its funding with the aim of supporting more adventurous ideas and freeing researchers from the treadmill of applying for short-term grants.

Under the changes announced this week, it will phase out two of its four main grant schemes in favour of an approach that puts researchers, not their proposals, first.

Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "We are doing what many in the scientific community have been asking for, which is to support the best people flexibly and give them the time to answer creative questions."

The Wellcome Trust will phase out both its Programme and Project awards, which are worth about £110 million a year and account for around 20 per cent of its budget.

The money instead will be distributed via its new Investigator Awards. Rather than looking in detail at research proposals, the awards will fund individual scientists based on their track record and the importance of their scientific inquiry.

To ensure that less-established researchers are not disadvantaged, the scheme has two strands: Investigator Awards targeting mid-career researchers and Senior Investigator Awards aimed at veterans.

They are modelled on Wellcome's Research Fellowships, which have proved popular and successful in the past. They will continue, as will its large-scale Strategic Awards.

Sir Mark said: "What we are doing is building on our fellowship scheme. The new awards extend the fellowship model to researchers who have tenured positions." Fellowships have, in the past, been allocated only to those who do not hold permanent university positions.

Although peer review will still be used to make judgments, he said, applicants will no longer be assessed on written proposals, but by interviews instead.

Whereas awards under the Project and Programme schemes typically cover only a three- to five-year period, the new awards could be any length. "People will have as long as they need, but typically anything from three to seven years," Sir Mark explained.

Wellcome is also making Enhancement Awards available for investigators throughout the period, giving them a cash boost to buy equipment when necessary.

Shared delusion

Sir Mark said that the traditional system of researchers sending in detailed proposals was a "curious form of application" that amounted to a folie a deux, a madness shared by researcher and funder.

"The system has connived to give people grants on the basis that they describe a project in meticulous detail, which will probably never be completed in the way it is proposed," he said. "What we want to do is move towards a more intellectually justifiable way of providing support on the basis of questions such as: 'What is your track record?'; 'What is your research question and why is it important?'; 'How, roughly, do you think you are going to do it?'; and 'How long and what resources are you going to need?'"

He hoped that this would lead to more adventurous research.

Sir Mark said: "It gives people the opportunity to ask more risky questions. If you are on a three-year funding cycle, there is a terrible danger that you'll do safe things to ensure you write a paper to get your next grant."

He added that Wellcome would not be asking its investigators to predict the economic or social impact of their work in advance, unlike the research councils.

The exact details of the scheme will be finalised in the coming months, with input from the scientific community. The first round of the Investigator Awards will open in August 2010, with the first grants awarded in spring 2011. The final Project and Programme grants will be awarded in March 2011.

The move is likely to be warmly welcomed by scientists. The difficulties of securing grants were raised recently in the PLoS Biology journal by Peter Lawrence, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and emeritus scientist at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

In an opinion piece, "Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research", Dr Lawrence writes about the bureaucracy of grant applications and the "astrology" required to predict the path a research proposal may follow.

Sir Mark stressed that interview panels - which would be formed of peers selected on the basis of track records, imagination and breadth - would be able to see through flashy presentations.

Read Sir Mark Walport's opinion in related articles (right)

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