The Wellcome Trust expects to nearly double the number of early career researchers that it supports from next year.
The prediction was made by the trust’s director, Jeremy Farrar, after the announcement last week of a raft of changes to the biomedical charity’s funding schemes.
Dr Farrar, who was appointed last year, said that visits to about 40 institutions had convinced him that “the key pinch point” in career trajectories was the transition from postdoctoral researcher to principal investigator. “People need a leg-up [at that point], and I think we have lost that a bit. We need to give them the encouragement of a career pathway [because] if we lose a cohort over a five- to 10-year window, we will never get [those people] back. That is a real worry because youth is a driver of innovation.”
To address this, the trust will significantly increase the number of Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellowships and Sir Henry Dale early career fellowships it funds. Dr Farrar also expects strong demand from early career researchers for the trust’s new “seed” grants, aimed at funding the gathering of preliminary data that could be used in applications for larger grants.
“It has become sometimes easier to get a grant of a few million pounds than one of £50,000. But great things can be achieved with smaller amounts,” he said.
He also believes that the abolition of the “artificial” distinction between new and senior investigator awards (which fund individuals for up to seven years) would increase the success of early career researchers.
“I want us to get back to focusing on the person in front of us, where they are in their career and what potential they have, rather than lumping them into two big buckets with a whole pile of people who may be very different to them,” he said.
He would also “dearly love” to see the replication in the non-medical field of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ starter grants, which the trust co-funds, aimed at helping clinical lecturers launch research careers. But he rejected the reinstatement of project grants, which were controversially replaced by investigator awards in 2011.
Despite being able to increase spending in 2014-15, Dr Farrar acknowledged that the trust has had to make “choices” about spending priorities. “But we aren’t losing sight of the fact that there are brilliant mentors and senior people around the UK, and we will continue to support them,” he added.
The trust spends about £600 million a year on research. Its recent moves towards distributing fewer, larger grants and insisting on open access have been widely imitated.
Other announced changes include new “collaborative awards” for teams of principal investigators, plus greater efforts to identify “where might we be in 10 or 20 years”, with a view to using a small portion of the trust’s funds to “catalyse” research areas, disciplines or career paths singled out as potentially important.
More details of the changes will emerge in coming months, but Dr Farrar said he could not promise that they would all work as intended. “We will evaluate them and listen to the community again and see where we can evolve them,” he said.