Wellcome and Royal Society team up for biomedicine

The merging of two prestigious fellowship schemes could set a new global standard in support of early-career independent researchers, it has been suggested.

October 27, 2011

Fellowship: biomedics will benefit

The Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust are to merge their existing fellowships for junior principal investigators into a scheme intended to combine the benefits of both.

The Sir Henry Dale fellowship will combine the eight-year duration of the Royal Society's university research fellowship with the higher level of funding offered by the Wellcome Trust's five-year research career development fellowship.

Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said both organisations believed the scheme would be "among the best in the world" and expected others to emulate it.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said one aim of the move had been to obviate the need for university research Fellows to spend a lot of time applying for grants.

"We are (currently) making an assessment that they are excellent, but saying: 'Go out and write five applications for grants and good luck.' It just isn't efficient," he said.

"Having been a researcher of this sort myself, I know exactly what it is like; I would have jumped at a scheme like this."

Sir Mark said the Dale fellowships, named after the Nobel prizewinning Royal Society president and inaugural Wellcome Trust chair, would take the most talented researchers through "potentially the most creative parts of their career" when they needed "the time, the freedom and the resources to ask the really difficult questions".

The Fellows will also be offered mentoring, and Sir Paul said the Royal Society was contemplating a more general expansion of its mentoring programme for early-career researchers.

Both men insisted that the number of fellowships offered would not decline - and could increase.

Sir Mark said the "limiting factor" would be the quality of applicants - although he emphasised that the scheme would be extremely competitive.

Success rates for the Wellcome scheme vary, but the Royal Society awards just 40 university research fellowships a year at a success rate of less than 8 per cent.

Dale fellowships will only be available in biomedicine, but Sir Paul said discussions were ongoing with funders about setting up similar schemes in other scientific areas.

This week, the Royal Society is hosting a round-table discussion, convened by universities and science minister David Willetts, on the structure of scientific careers. It comes amid growing concerns about the mismatch between the number of scientists being trained and the academic positions available.

But Sir Paul said the Dale scheme was aimed at the few who were likely to remain in the academy, while Sir Mark expected Dale Fellows to be "snapped up" by universities around the world.

Dora Biro, a university research Fellow in the University of Oxford's department of zoology, said extra funding would make a "huge difference" to researchers in an expensive field such as biomedicine.

She cautioned that having a lucrative fellowship could count against applicants for permanent positions if selection committees were looking for a history of grant-application success. But she thought the prestige of winning a Dale fellowship would outweigh this negative.


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