Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Wellcome Trust


  1.  The Wellcome trust was established in 1936 on the death of Sir Henry Wellcome, whose will decreed that the share capital of his pharmaceutical company, the Wellcome Foundation, be vested in trustees to support research of a non-commercial nature. Through the public floatation of the Wellcome Foundation in 1986 and the acquisition of the Foundation by Glaxo in 1995, the Wellcome Trust has become one of the world's largest charities, with a current asset base of approximately £13 billion and an annual spend in excess of £450 million.

  2.  The Trust's mission statement is to "foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health". The Trust strives to achieve this goal by providing individual researchers of the highest quality across the biomedical sciences with the resources they need to pursue their subject through research grants, infrastructure awards and training opportunities. The Trust primarily funds research in the UK, but has a growing number of international programmes, which aim to strengthen research into major diseases in developing countries. In addition, through its Medicine, Society and History programme, the Trust takes proactive steps towards informing the public debate on the social and ethical issues surrounding biomedical research and its medical application.

  3.  As a major funder of research in the UK, the Wellcome Trust, welcomes the opportunity to participate in this inquiry. We have responded only to those questions which are relevant to our organisation.


  4.  The Wellcome Trust responded to Realising Our Potential in 1993. Many of the issues raised by this White Paper are still very relevant today: academic careers, technology transfer, working in partnership and the public understanding of science.


  5.  It is interesting to note that academic careers, highlighted in Realising Our Potential as an area where there were major concerns, remain so. This includes career structures, participation of women in science and ensuring adequate provision of people with craft and technical skills. We would be supportive of initiatives building on the findings of recent reports (Dearing, Bett, UK Life Sciences Committee), which again highlighted academic careers as a continuing concern.


  6.  The Wellcome Trust, British Heart Foundation and Medical Research Council worked in partnership to develop foresight methodology. The results of this process were published in 1995 as Foresight in Science: An Experiment in the Field of Cardiovascular Research. The process of analysis, consultation and wide debate provided strong, coherent signals to policy makers on options for new initiatives that were likely to strengthen the research field against a number of possible futures. Furthermore, the techniques used provided a useful framework for developing an evidenced-based approach to policy making and priority setting. The main lessons learned through the Foresight process included the importance of:

    —  Consulting users of research outputs early in the Foresight process as researchers and users have quite different perspectives on the future of research fields;

    —  Capturing minority (possibly maverick) views as well as developing consensus view points;

    —  Including consultation on non-scientific and infrastructural priorities;

    —  Identifying areas that could particularly benefit from direct interaction between users and researchers.


  7.  A key theme of Realising Our Potential was the development of stronger partnerships between the scientific community and the research charities. The Trust has welcomed the opportunity of working in partnership with government and would seek to do so in the future where it believes real value is added to the science base as a result. However, the Trust considers that specific objectives must be established early on in any future initiatives between government and research charities, and channels of clear communication must be identified.

  8.  Government should consider the management resource implications for major initiatives run through partnerships and ensure they are adequately provided for.

  9.  An example of a successful public-private partnership is the SNP Consortium. The Wellcome Trust has invested £9 million into this £30 million collaboration with 10 pharmaceutical companies and leading academic centres. The Consortium will build on the data emerging from the Human Genome Project creating a high-quality map of genetic markers. Over the next two years, the Consortium aims to identify 300,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs or "snips") in the human genome, variations that could be markers for a susceptibility to diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes or cancer. The information gathered by the SNP Consortium will be made publicly available to researchers over the Internet. With the SNP map to hand, researchers hope to be able to devise new medical treatments, and treatments specifically tailored to individuals.


  10.  The Wellcome Trust supports the high level principles outlined in the Government's recent consultation on Science and Innovation. However, we have a number of areas of concern where we would like to see the strategic objectives broadened. We have explored these areas below and highlighted additional features that we feel could be incorporated into any future strategy for science, engineering and technology in the UK.

Quality of life

  11.  The Trust believes these principles to be narrowly focused on economic gain and improving the competitiveness of the economy, but failing to explore ways to drive the exploitation of research and technological development to improve health and quality of life. For example, the principles fail to acknowledge that in the UK there is a substantial portfolio of biomedical and health services research, funded by both government and medical research charities. The principles focus instead on research that results in patents, and do not acknowledge the many other outcomes of research.


  12.  The recent consultation on the Science and Innovation Strategy highlights the need to improve the flow of scientists to industry. We believe this should be expanded to public life, as there is an increasing need for scientifically literate people at all levels of society.

  13.  We believe a further objective of the strategy should be the development of attractive career structures for scientists within universities. People are at the heart of developing a robust research base and we have concerns that many aspects of scientific careers are not currently attractive (career and pay structure). Evidence is emerging that many young scientists give up research early in their careers. For example, we have recently published our own reviews of Trust-funded PhD students and a follow-up of previous cohorts. The first study found that more than one third of final year students (on four-year PhD courses) were fairly sure they would not remain in any area of scientific research because of their concerns about the academic career structure and pay. The cohort study shows that 81 per cent of Trust funded PhD cohort took a first postdoctoral position, but only 46 per cent remain in academic research after four to seven years.

Infrastructure and overheads

  14.  The Science and Innovation Strategy consultation document fails to tackle the overwhelming need for investment in infrastructure. We strongly believe that the science base will be unable to meet the expectations of the Innovation Strategy without a similar strategy for continuing investment in university infrastructure, in the form of a rolling programme, so that "catch-up" initiatives, like the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), become unnecessary. Substantial further funding is needed to ensure the infrastructure of UK Universities enables the UK to be competitive in research. As you will be aware, the £750 million JIF fund has been heavily oversubscribed, having so far received a demand of over £3.5 billion with a further two funding rounds yet to come.

  15.  In addition to the physical infrastructure there is an increasing need to address the requirement for specialised technical staff essential for the operation of research in today's science laboratories and the Trust would recommend the Committee considers the recommendations made in the Royal Society report "Technical and research support in the modern laboratory" (September 1998.)

  16.  As a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities we believe that the core funding of infrastructure (capital for buildings) and the many other indirect costs of research (general upkeep or running costs of the basic fabric and support services, including libraries, personnel departments, etc) is primarily the role of the Government through university funding. We will continue to meet the direct costs of research through the many types of grants funded following our normal peer review process. In addition to the salaries of over 4,000 researchers, such grants also fund equipment, building, research consumables, travel costs and many other items. The Trust provides the financial resources to cover the direct costs of research as well as salaries. Additionally, the Trust also permits the researchers it funds to spend up to 30 per cent of their time on teaching and administration. We urge that there be greater transparency on the roles of the different funding parties involved.

Knowledge Transfer

  17.  We believe the question on the best methods for stimulating increased knowledge transfer is clearly a difficult, yet important one. We suggest that it might be useful for the Government to consider how it could help to stimulate greater collaboration and joint working amongst the individual technology transfer units within universities to enhance commercial exploitation of research. This type of joint working is clearly possible as evidenced by the development of consortia to exploit their intellectual property through the University Challenge Fund (for example, the White Rose Biotechnology Consortium, a joint venture of the Universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield).

  18.  We would also suggest that it would be helpful if there were a clear strategy or framework which set the variety of funding schemes for technology transfer in context. This would also assist in comparative evaluation and should show where the gaps exist. Currently, there are many different government technology transfer schemes, managed out of a range of different departments and agencies, leading to confusion and duplication.

  19.  The Wellcome Trust has put forward an innovative proposal to improve the interface between academia and industry at the Trust's Human Genome Campus at Hixton Hall, Cambridge. Planning permission has been refused for this development, but we are currently discussing a way forward for the future of this initiative with South Cambridgeshire District Council.

  20.  We would like to suggest other innovative ways of exploiting outputs of research that aims to improve quality of life, beyond more traditional technology schemes. For example, the Cochrane Collaboration works to ensure that health care decisions in the GPs surgery, at the hospital bedside and organisational level are based on the best available evidence.

Regional networks

  21.  We believe that regional issues are for government and agree with the Science and Innovation Strategy that regional networks should be promoted, as long as decisions are based on scientific excellence and that scientific quality is not reduced in the long term.

Improving Public Confidence

  22.  One objective of the Science and Innovation Strategy aims to improve public confidence by creating greater transparency in the regulation of science. We strongly support improving public confidence in science, however, we question whether government is the best body to undertake this? The events of the past few years (BSE; GM crops; cloning; biotechnology patents) show that when an issue does attract public attention, the public clearly does not believe that it has enough knowledge of, or trust in the government system. Part of the problem may be that the public does not feel that non-technical issues—matters of moral and social values—are taken sufficiently into account compared with the "scientific" issues; part may be a cynicism that, when economic matters are at stake, commercial interest will always win out over other considerations; part may also be that people feel they have no way of influencing the decision-making process. These are all properly matters of politics, not science and technology, and it is the responsibility of government, in consultation with all stakeholders, to devise and implement new institutions of popular representation if it should come to believe that the existing ones are deficient.

  23.  The Science and Innovation Strategy is focused very much on internal government transparency, we believe that a much broader view is needed and would like to see the establishment of a strategy for the public understanding of science, bringing together all interested parties, to counteract the increasingly anti-science culture in the UK. This process should not be public led, but involve all interested stakeholders.

  24.  The Wellcome Trust support Sir Robert May's guidelines for the use of scientific advice in policy making.

June 2000

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