Is Wellcome’s £250 million fund the leap forward science needs?

Researchers welcome ambition of new initiative but question whether it will give scholars the autonomy that they need

July 13, 2018
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Taking flight: ‘We need to protect curiosity-driven science [by having] the means to pick out these people who are not listened to…who have ideas which don’t fit into a particular outcome. Over the past 10 years, we’ve ignored that’

A new funding scheme designed to promote daring, “high-risk” research has been met with mixed feelings by scientists, who have praised the initiative’s ambition but have questioned whether it will achieve its lofty goals.

The Wellcome Trust’s £250 million Leap Fund aims to support ambitious projects that have the potential “to fundamentally change science or transform health” within a five- to 10-year timespan. It is open to innovators from around the world with “bold ideas that would fall outside the remit of conventional life sciences funding” because “they are deemed too high risk, need to overcome a major scientific or technical hurdle to turn a theoretical goal into reality, or because the individual does not have an academic background in the life sciences”.

The programme appears to be a dramatic step away from the tight boundaries of responsive mode funding applications. It will operate at arm’s length from the trust and will be led by a chief executive who will decide which ideas to back and will have the power to reallocate funding as needed.

But the initiative, which will account for about 5 per cent of Wellcome’s spending over five years, could spark concern that it will limit the amount of funding available to the trust’s traditional beneficiaries.

John Dainton, emeritus Sir James Chadwick professor of physics at the University of Liverpool, said that the fund had “laudable aims” but that more details were needed before scientists could get excited.

“I will always strongly oppose over-powerful centralisation [of funds],” he told Times Higher Education. “We need to protect curiosity-driven science [by having] the means to pick out these people who are not listened to…who have ideas which don’t fit into a particular outcome. Over the past 10 years, we’ve ignored that.

“The [main] issue will be how are the researchers and their projects identified given the ambitious remit.”

Lee Cronin, Regius chair of chemistry at the University of Glasgow, said that he hoped that the new fund “does things differently and takes some risks”.

“Often people say there is a valley of death in technology development from the lab to market but it is even worse now in academia with an ideas valley of death from the mind to the grant proposal,” Professor Cronin said. “This valley of death comes from narrow peer review, interdisciplinary proposals being incorrectly reviewed by ‘experts’ in one area who think they are equally capable of commenting on another, [and] the inability of funders to take risk.

“I think the UK is suffering big time from the innovation and ideas death that is currently going on driven by changes to funding, paper work, and the need to account funding spent. If we don’t do something now it might be too late.”

Ed Whiting, Wellcome’s director of policy, argued that the fund’s innovative model would allow it to back “unconventional and disruptive thinking”.

“On the one hand, the overall purpose of the fund is to try new things, to take theoretical propositions and take them into practical reality; but the way it will do that is to make quite clear choices and to be quite hands-on about the way that it operates,” he told THE. “I think that recognises that to find the ideas in the first place, you need to be open…but then to bring those proposals along you also need to be very directive in the way it is done.”

The fund’s first programmes are expected to begin in 2020. No potential candidates have been suggested to lead the fund yet, but Mr Whiting said that it would most likely be someone with experience of dealing with risk management.

“It could be someone from the commercial sector, a venture capitalist,” he suggested. “It could well be a very qualified highly expert scientist in their own right, but I would be surprised if they had the breadth of experience that we are particularly interested in.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Any plan that frees grants from the sinking ship that is our underfunded, over-managed university system here in the UK is worth a try. Innovative thinking, especially in global public health, may very well flourish in less-developed countries. The Trust has had an unfortunate reputation in recent years of destroying what it cannot control, and falls prey to the shifting whims of its own managers. In this, it is not alone among funders. Surely new, worldwide outreach is worth the relatively small risk this new plan offers.

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