Alison Goddard reports on a private-sector investment of Pounds 400 million in British basic research
THE WORLD's largest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, made a U-turn this week to donate Pounds 400 million to supporting basic research in British universities.
The trust had previously insisted that university infrastructure was the sole responsibility of government. It is not "a research charity's responsibility to pay for the general upkeep or running of a university or its basic fabric", the Wellcome Trust stated in its response to the Dearing report last year.
But it changed its mind after the government promised to invest new money in the science base. "This was essential," said Michael Dexter, who took over as director of the Wellcome Trust two weeks ago.
The investment was made in response to the dire conditions that university researchers presently endure. "Many of the science departments in our universities have crumbling infrastructure and inadequate conditions - out-of-date equipment, poor facilities - all as a result of chronic underfunding over many, many years," said Dr Dexter. "We really couldn't stand back and allow this to continue."
The trust decided that it was now the time to approach the government.
Keeping Britain at the forefront of the international project to identify the human genome was cited as the main reason behind the donation. The Wellcome Trust has spent Pounds 300 million on sequencing the human genome so far. Its "genome campus" close to Cambridge comprises three centres funded by the trust, the Medical Research Council and members of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.
But Dr Dexter also pointed out the importance of investing in underpinning technologies. "Sequencing of the human genome is only the first step in a process that is going to include the whole of the science base - not only the biomedical sciences but also physics, chemistry, informatics and computing," he said. "To reach our goal of exploiting the information emerging from the genome project will require the close interaction of all these scientific disciplines."
A quarter of the money has been earmarked for a high-intensity X-ray synchrotron that will be built at the Daresbury Laboratory near Warrington. The facility will be used to study the structure of the small molecules that make up living organisms and for work in other areas such as materials science.
The synchrotron is now being designed and will probably cost between Pounds 150 million and Pounds 200 million to build, according to Gordon Walker, who is deputy director of research at Daresbury's sister lab, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford. It should be up and running by 2004, Dr Walker added.
The Wellcome Trust normally spends some Pounds 250 million on medical research each year. Despite this week's huge donation, it will continue to support more than 3,000 researchers at 300 institutes in 30 countries. "This investment will not affect other Wellcome Trust funding for research projects and fellowships," said Dr Dexter.
The Wellcome Trust was founded under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome, who died in 1936. Sir Henry was an American who came to Britain in 1880 and founded what grew into an international pharmaceuticals company.
The trust has assets of more than Pounds 10 billion including 4.7 per cent of Glaxo Wellcome, worth about Pounds 3 billion.