Trust brings £2m boost

September 23, 2005

The Wellcome Trust this week announced a £2 billion budget for biomedical research, but its director will be making daily checks to see which of his researchers has been published.

The research money, which will be spread over five years, will place the charity on an equal footing with the government-funded Medical Research Council. But, in common with other funding agencies, the charity will seek evidence that its cash is making a difference.

Mark Walport, the trust's director, said: "We have a partnership with the National Society of Medicine in America, so that on a day-to-day basis I can check what is being published. We will be focusing on what has been discovered as a result of Wellcome funding."

Confirmation of the trust's healthy bank balance will be a relief to researchers.

The charity had been hit hard by stock market falls in recent years. At its peak in 2000, its portfolio of shares was valued at £15 billion, but in 2003 this plunged to about £9 billion.

But Professor Walport said the charity was no more vulnerable than other funders.

He said: "Any funding agency depends on the economic cycle - it doesn't matter whether you are a government funder or a charitable funder. Funds go up and down, so in that case our endowment doesn't make a difference."

He added: "We are trying to fund clever people who will ask important questions. That is also about taking risks."

As part of this risk-taking approach, Wellcome is anxious not to be too prescriptive about the areas it will fund. Its new strategic plan outlines a move to fewer but broader grant-funding schemes.

Professor Walport said: "This should not be about telling scientists what to do. We want to make the schemes we've got as flexible as possible. The challenge is not to end up with a grants funding committee trying to compare apples, pears and mangoes."

In addition, there will be a new rapid response fund of £50 million a year to allow the trust to act quickly on emerging areas such as new infectious diseases.

Professor Walport said: "As an endowed charity, we have terrific flexibility, and that's a very important position to be in."

The charity has specified that clinical research and knowledge transfer will be two specific priorities.

Professor Walport said Wellcome was keeping a close eye on possible opportunities to help postdoctoral researchers. "There is a whole tribe of scientists who are funded on project and programme grants, and everyone is concerned about their careers," he said.

"It is partly about asking the right questions on the end of grant report.

What have you published? Who have you trained? What has happened to people who have worked on the project?" he added.

Scientists will also be able to apply for the trust's new strategic awards in order to boost their team. This might include funding for a postdoctoral training scheme.

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