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The Wellcome Trust’s groundbreaking Investigator Awards may be consciously focused on supporting the best tenured biomedical researchers, but the trust’s director, Sir Mark Walport, is keen to emphasise that they are “awards rather than rewards”.
The trust took the decision in 2009 to replace its previous grant schemes after reflecting on researchers’ gripes about the grant application treadmill and the common “gaming” of the system.
In an interview with Times Higher Education to coincide with this week’s announcement of the first beneficiaries of the £56 million programme, Sir Mark said that the trust had concluded that the way to enable the best science was “to support the brightest minds and give them the flexibility to identify important research questions and the resources, including the time, to make a substantial contribution”.
Hence, the Investigator Awards are longer and larger - up to about £3 million - than traditional grants, and successful principal investigators can use them to tackle any important question within the trust’s remit to achieve “extraordinary improvements in human and animal health”.
“Applicants were asking for grants for up to seven years and no one could even attempt to say what they would be doing after years two or three, so the funding decision was based much more on the strength of their vision and approach,” Sir Mark explained.
Decisions were also informed to a greater extent than previously by applicants’ track records - although Sir Mark insisted their career stage was always borne in mind, meaning senior researchers did not automatically have a huge advantage.
He described the application process as “rigorous and fair”: applicants were asked to “identify the question they wanted to tackle and how they would go about it” in a “rather shorter application than people are used to writing”.
Shortlisted applications were peer reviewed and their authors were interviewed by selection panels of international experts.
Critics have claimed that the size of the awards increases the opportunity for top researchers to rack up funding and grow overly large groups.
Sir Mark agreed that there “comes a point at which a lab becomes so big that principal investigators lose control of what is going on” and said the trust had sought to assure itself that “what we were providing was core and was not duplicating what (applicants) already have”.
However, he admitted that some of the successful applicants have other funding streams, and said the trust “wouldn’t dream” of discouraging them from applying for more: “If they have the capacity and facilities to attack a number of questions well, then why not”
But he noted that some “very senior” applicants had been turned down while others had been given shorter awards than they had asked for. Seven of the inaugural awards have been made in the “new investigator” category for early career researchers.
“Anyone who looks at the list from inside science will recognise some names and others they won’t know at all,” he said.
The trust’s focus on funding the best science means Sir Mark is relaxed about the fact that the trust will be financing fewer principal investigators than under its previous grant scheme.
Nor is he worried that 21 of the first recipients of Investigator Awards are from the “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London - although he admitted that as a matter of national policy, “overconcentration geographically is not a good thing”.
Worries on that topic were provoked by the research councils’ recent announcement in their delivery plans of similar changes to their grant programmes.
But Sir Mark declined to comment on the councils beyond emphasising that the trust worked closely with them to make sure that UK research remained “greater than the sum of its parts”.
Around the time of last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Sir Mark publicly observed that the trust’s mission did not tie it irrevocably to the UK. Some took that as a warning that it might divert its spending abroad if the government slashed the research budget, but Sir Mark denied that that had been a live option.
“While the UK is as good as it is, we are able very effectively to spend our funds here and all the signs are it is going to remain strong,” he said.
Describing the CSR settlement as “far better than it could have been”, he urged the UK’s academic community to abandon its “glass- half-empty” mentality and “get on and deliver”.
But he insisted that this did not mean focusing exclusively on translational research, and noted that the majority of Investigator Awards did not “immediately have translational implications”.
“Everyone knows answering quite basic questions gives unpredictable answers that may turn out to be extremely important,” he said.
But he added that delivering did mean concentrating on important questions.
“The tools of science are so powerful it is terribly important you don’t waste them on trivial matters,” he said.