Wellcome revises funding brief to focus on outcomes

July 9, 2004

Research funding at the Wellcome Trust, hit hard by stock market losses in recent years, is set to remain stable for the next few years, the organisation's new director of science funding has told The Times Higher .

Sohaila Rastan, who is overseeing fundamental changes in the way Britain's wealthiest charity distributes its research money, said the trust would maintain its current level of about £400 million in funding a year.

But the move to shift money to areas where research is delivering a measurable impact means British researchers could face steep competition from successful overseas projects.

At its peak in 2000, the trust's portfolio of shares was valued at £15 billion, but last year this plunged to some £9 billion. It is now up to £10 billion, and the trust envisages a period of relative stability for researchers. About 15 per cent of Wellcome's grants go to overseas research.

Dr Rastan said: "No one year took the full hit of the crash. That means that now the stock market has recovered we won't see an immediate benefit.

We will probably bump around the £400 million mark for the next few years and then we will hopefully go up."

The principal change to the way the Wellcome Trust distributes its funding will be a move to focus on research outcomes rather than simply the quality of research proposals. The charity is keen to fund areas where it is having a discernible impact - and where more needs to be done.

Dr Rastan said: "There was a time when our asset base meant we could fund what we wanted but things are now different. We want to fund areas where we can really make a difference."

This approach is likely to benefit overseas researchers. Dr Rastan explained that some of the most successful work in terms of benefits to patients is occurring in foreign units, such as the trust's clinical research unit in the Centre for Tropical Diseases in Vietnam.

"There is a huge unmet need (in tropical diseases) - and we will continue to support it," she said.

Dr Rastan is developing a five-year plan for Wellcome's science spending and this is likely to place a major emphasis on clinical patient-oriented research, in keeping with the government agenda.

Public engagement in science looks certain to be another priority. The trust doubled the grants it awarded in this area in 2003, and Dr Rastan said such investment was likely to continue.

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