Research intelligence - Engine of discovery seeks new driver

Elizabeth Gibney on the Wellcome Trust’s top job, one of the most powerful roles in UK research

January 3, 2013

Source: Science Photo Library

Transfusions welcome: many junior biomedical researchers drew on the ‘lifeblood’ of recently discontinued project and programme grants

After the appointment of University of Leeds vice-chancellor Michael Arthur as the next provost of University College London, all eyes are now turning the short distance down Euston Road to find out who will take the helm at the Wellcome Trust.

Sir Mark Walport, the trust’s high-profile director since 2003, leaves the research charity in April to succeed Sir John Beddington as the government’s chief scientific adviser.

Specialist headhunters Perrett Laver have been hired by the trust in its search for a new director, a role that in 2011 earned Sir Mark more than £403,000.

His successor will lead an organisation that, according to Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, is a crucial funder of UK science - not just because of its annual budget of more than £700 million, but because of its independent influence.

“They’ve got the ability to take a lead in areas where government or research councils can’t,” he said, citing as examples the trust’s impact on debates on open access and on research career structures.

This freedom makes the director’s role potentially one of the most influential in UK research - an opportunity Sir Mark has certainly embraced over the past 10 years.

Sir Mark, formerly head of the division of medicine at Imperial College London, has led the trust in efforts to increase its public profile, including the opening in 2007 of its exhibition centre, the Wellcome Collection. He has personally acted as a spokesman on issues such as animal research and fertility treatment.

Open access policy has also been formulated from the top, according to Robert Kiley, the trust’s head of digital services.

The introduction in 2005 of the trust’s open-access policy, which mandated that Wellcome Trust-funded research be published within six months in the repository UK PubMed Central (expanded in November 2012 to become Europe PubMed Central), was sparked by a “eureka moment” in 2003 when Sir Mark tried to get hold of Wellcome-funded research in the trust’s own library and was denied access.

According to Mr Kiley, Sir Mark realised “something is wrong with the system (when) a funder spends £5 million on a piece of research, and they’re now being asked for $30 to go and read the thing”.

The trust has since become a pioneer of open access, co-founding the open-access journal eLife and co-founding Europe PubMed Central. The UK research councils and European funders have since followed with their own policies - in no small part down to Sir Mark’s encouragement, Mr Kiley added.

Controversial decisions

But other policy decisions have been more controversial. One of the biggest has been a shift in the trust’s funding from projects to people. In an effort to support “the brightest and best researchers” and allow them to be free “from the cycle of focusing on securing grants rather than tackling major research problems”, the trust introduced investigator awards in 2010 while removing programme and project grants.

According to the trust, the large and flexible awards have been well received. But with the number of institutions funded shrinking from 58 through project and programme grants in 2009 to 28 through investigator awards, many scientists are concerned at the loss of the “lifeblood” of biomedical research funding, especially for junior researchers.

Part of the new director’s job will be to monitor that situation. Kieron Flanagan, lecturer in science and technology policy and management at the University of Manchester’s business school, said last year’s backlash directed at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council over its “poorly-communicated prioritisation exercise” showed the importance of fully explaining such funding decisions.

As a member of the trust’s investment committee, the director will also be responsible for ensuring the stability of funding, based on returns from investments in a volatile market. Despite a fall in the asset base in 2011, a stronger market in 2012 helped to increase the value of the trust’s assets by £0.9 billion. Charitable spending also bounced back to above 2009 levels at £746 million (see graph).

In the past five years the profile of spending has changed, with science funding falling by 6 per cent since 2008 and an increase in funding for technology transfer and the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire.

The scale and complexity of biomedical research means that a key part of the new director’s job will lie in forming and sustaining partnerships with other funders, including the research councils and charities.

The Francis Crick Institute - a £700 million biomedical centre being constructed in St Pancras, London, in which the trust is investing £120 million - was only made possible through such partnerships, in this case with the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and three UK universities.

Sir Mark’s successor will also have to react to an uncertain university and research system, including potentially more austere budgets, increased tuition fees and the impact of a new research excellence framework, Dr Flanagan said.

In the past, he argued, the trust has been able to use its good relationships with government and large coffers to “influence the government to spend money where it might not have done”.

But he said many questions remain about how the Wellcome Trust will wield its power, and the answers will depend greatly on its new leader.



Possible candidates? names to reckon with in the search for a new director

Sir John Bell: Former president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and chair of the government’s Office for the Strategic Coordination of Health Research.

Dame Kay Davies: Already familiar with the trust in her role as a governor, Dame Kay is Dr Lee’s professor of anatomy and associate head of the division of medical sciences at the University of Oxford, and founder of the Medical Research Council Functional Genomics Unit.

Sir Robert Lechler: Vice-principal for health at King’s College London and executive director of King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre.

Sir John Savill: Chief executive of the MRC and former director of the University of Edinburgh/MRC Centre for Inflammation Research, whose term at the research council runs until October 2013.

Sir John Tooke: Vice-provost (health) at University College London and president of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Kevin Moses: Currently the director of science funding at the Wellcome Trust, his appointment to the top job would be a bold move, as he moved to the trust from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a US charitable organisation, only in July 2011.

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