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Does The Wellcome Trust just fund the best science?

Tom Forth,

In an excellent recent piece in The Guardian, the Director of The Wellcome Trust explains how the success of scientific research that the charity funds relies on international free movement of goods, researchers, and their families.

In the final paragraph, carefully-crafted to get past The Wellcome Trust’s press team, he leaves the reader and the government with a warning. A hard Brexit would make the UK a less attractive place to do science, and thus a less attractive place for Wellcome to spend.

I agree.

Transparency

I welcome the transparency of this interaction between UK science and UK politics. Too often science claims in public that the two are separate. The scientific establishment claims that The Haldane Principle means that it should be given huge amounts of UK government money and allowed to spend it without political interference. Then, in small meetings, usually in London, Oxford, or Cambridge, often open to the public, but which few people know about, the lobbying occurs, and the decisions are taken.

It is refreshing to see the lobbying happen in the open. I look forward to a day when decisions are taken as visibly.

Reliant on the UK, but absent from most of it

The Wellcome Trust is clearly deeply attached to the UK. It spends the vast majority of its money here, despite that not being the optimal global distribution. Both its money and its lobbying of the UK government have had significant impact on the structure of UK science.

In Cambridge, The Wellcome Sanger Institute played a significant role in encouraging AstraZeneca to move from Manchester to Cambridge.

In Oxford, The Wellcome Trust’s lobbying was crucial to the UK government’s decision to move the UK’s national synchrotron from Manchester to Oxford.

In London, the Wellcome Trust was key to enabling the centralisation of the UK’s biomedical research effort in a single location at The Crick Institute, directly opposite its own headquarters. The choice of location for this £1bn institute was infamously not taken by a transparent process based on evidence, but rather on the preference of its founders and funders.

It is right for The Wellcome Trust to criticise government. But it is also right for Britons, and the government if it chooses, to criticise The Wellcome Trust.

Criticising The Wellcome Trust

For nearly ten years I have criticised as inefficient the centralisation of funding That The Wellcome Trust has aided and argued for. The data shows that the UK government and The Wellcome Trust have consistently over-invested in London and Scotland compared to business. A recent report for Nesta, “The Biomedical Bubble”, explores this issue in more detail and comes to the same conclusion.

For most of the past decade my criticism was ignored, mocked, or rejected. I simply had a “chip on my shoulder”. I should stop moaning and move to London or Cambridge if I wanted a job in science. Science was just being funded where science was best, I was assured.

At the time, most research bodies and institutes didn’t publish the regional breakdown of their funding. If they did, they made it hard to find. So people like me calculated it ourselves.

In response the scientific establishment published their own statistics, adding complexity to skew the numbers in their favour. Bizarre measures such as “regional success rate” and “funding as a proportion of active businesses” sprung up.

Meanwhile too many researchers of innovation at Universities seemed largely uninterested in what is now called “place”. Instead they focused on national and international comparisons. These were of wider interest and thus more worthy of citation.

Brexit has changed this situation for the better.

The importance of place is now appreciated within science. Not, I regret, because it is accepted that the current distribution of funding across the UK is inefficient. But because in a national referendum those areas that had seen less benefit from the UK’s recent success were able to vote to injure the current system, including the scientific establishment.

The Wellcome Trust, the research councils, the scientific institutions, the top research universities, and many others have for decades focused on London — where both they and increasingly centralised UK government were. They have consistently won the argument for increased funding, generous visa exemptions, and the importance of science.

The UK’s centres of science — London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Scotland —voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. But there are more people in other places, and after decades of being ignored, mocked, and rejected they are so detached from science that few will have even considered scientific research or The Wellcome Trust when voting to leave the EU.

No matter what the scientific establishment says, almost no-one will change their mind on the issue now. Science is simply not felt to be relevant to the lives of the vast majority of Britons.

 

Biased funding

Having said much the same as I have written here on twitter, Dorothy Bishop, a researcher at Oxford University suggested that rather than regional bias in funding maybe The Wellcome Trust were just funding places where the best research was happening.

I welcome such comments, especially when the person making them understands the data supporting their claim and is able to produce it. Dorothy shared the 2014 REF scorings for quality of research in Biological Sciences on GitHub meaning I was able to use them to investigate the claim.

By summing the REF scores by region, and by comparing it with The Wellcome Trust’s funding by region data I think that we can see that there is a regional bias in favour of places close to The Wellcome Trust’s HQ.

The Wellcome Trust spends more in London and South East England (places close to its headquarters) than scientific excellence would suggest is merited. It thus spends less in the rest of the UK.

In each year this bias is small and unintentional. But since funding leads to output, and output leads to funding, even a small bias accumulates over time. And we’ve had lots of time. This effect is probably larger than the three well-documented examples I gave earlier.

 

So what should we do?

I think that The Wellcome Trust are right to highlight the risk to research of a hard Brexit. I think that they should be a bit clearer about why it is Brexit that is making them less attached to the UK, when the strong scientific case for investing more widely has not previously pushed them to invest significantly elsewhere. And I hope that they will accept some responsibility for creating the mess that they now find themselves in.

Part of accepting that responsibility would be to think harder about where they fund, and if they’re really making decisions based on getting the best science for their money. If they’re honest, I think that they’ll see that they’ve made mistakes in the past, and I hope that they’ll consider fixing that in the future.

A good place to start would be to move their headquarters out of London. North West England is still a centre of scientific discovery. Offices in Liverpool and Manchester are vastly cheaper than London. The Wellcome Trust would be very … … welcome.

 

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