One of the world’s largest nongovernmental funders of science, the Wellcome Trust, is enlarging its focus to include goal-oriented, as well as basic research. The London-based philanthropy, which spends more than £1 billion per year, said today it will boost funding for research on infectious diseases, the health effects of global warming, and mental health. The new strategy moves it closer to philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on public health challenges around the world. “It’s a big shift,” says Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who leads the charity. “It’s not just about discovering stuff, it’s also about making sure that changes come to peoples’ lives.”
Wellcome already supports significant research in infectious disease. But outbreaks are “becoming larger, more frequent, and more complex,” a Wellcome spokesperson says, and so it will spend more money on researching neglected tropical diseases and pushing for “clinical trials with greater participant diversity.” It also hopes to make an impact in new areas. The spokesperson argues that there has been “little scientific progress in 30 years” on mental health or on the health impacts of global warming, which include the spread of infectious diseases and heat-related sickness and death.
Adding mental health is a particularly big step, says Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh who receives some funding from Wellcome and who consulted on a review that led to the new strategy. “We haven’t really seen a charity take on the mental health agenda,” she says.
The strategy is likely to influence other funders because the Wellcome Trust has a huge sway in the U.K. research system and beyond, says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield who is partly funded by Wellcome. “In a sense, where Wellcome moves, others quite often follow.”
Wellcome, which has seen its endowment rise to £28 billion (more than the $22.6 billion of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and less than the Gates Foundation’s $50 billion), also plans to spend a bigger share of its money outside of the United Kingdom. The trust wants to foster international cooperation as a counterweight to rising nationalism, Farrar says. “If you look at any of the challenges we face, not just the three we’ve chosen but any of the others, then I think the answers do not lie in returning to a 20th century nationalistic agenda.”
Farrar acknowledges that the new strategy is a departure from a focus on curiosity-driven basic research. “There are certain challenges, where you can’t just leave it to the idiosyncrasies of discovery,” he says. “You have to have a greater sense of mission of where you’re trying to get to.”
He adds, however, that basic research will still be the major beneficiary over the next 3 to 5 years. That’s partly because Wellcome needs to develop expertise in areas like climate change. “The frank truth is we couldn’t put a huge amount of money into that space at the moment and know quite where to use it,” Farrar says. Given Wellcome’s growing wealth, money for basic research could stay roughly at current levels while spending in the new focus areas ramps up, the Wellcome spokesperson says.
Helga Nowotny, a former president of the European Research Council (ERC), the EU basic research funding organization, says that is good news. As the coronavirus pandemic and climate change press down on society, research focused on pressing current problems is in vogue, and often it comes at the expense of basic research. In a July budget deal, for example, European leaders proposed slashing the ERC budget in favor of more applied research. “The tendency to prioritize short-term–oriented research over discovery research has recently increased again,” she says.