Even For One of the Biggest Supporters of Medical Research, Giving is Not Enough

U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, the world's second-largest charitable giver, recently announced its plan to increase health-related spending over the next five years to $7.7 billion. As you'd expect, a big part of the foundation's giving strategy for this money involves supporting research in several important areas of global health, spelled out more fully in a new strategic funding framework it released last year.

But when it announced its expanded research budget, Wellcome also made manifest what other large-scale science funders like the NIH have realized: Scientific progress doesn't just happen in the lab. It happens between research disciplines and institutions, and across several levels of society, including government.

“The Wellcome Trust has a longstanding record in science and research of which we are very proud,” says Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, in the foundation's spending announcement. “We are able to build on that legacy with an increased commitment to supporting people and teams with great ideas in basic science and applied research, social science and the humanities, which will remain at the core of our work. But we can now also bring additional focus to some of the biggest health challenges of our time."

Wellcome says its new funding priorities include areas such as drug-resistant infection, a rising concern as doctors see growing resistance to antibiotics and other drugs. They're also interested in vaccine development, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, where many lives are lost to preventable disease.

And, as we reported recently, Wellcome's strategy includes an ambitious $116 million, five-year initiative to investigate the links between the environment and human health, under its "Our Planet, Our Health" program. The foundation will also boost support for science education for the general population as well as for students and future scientists.

Wellcome was wise to make clear that it plans not only to fund good research ideas, but also efforts like connecting researchers and institutions with complementary ideas, and driving policy change and other reform. Even good research can take decades to move from bench to bedside, or end up gathering dust, forgotten, unless there's infrastructure to keep it in development.

But big-picture organizations like Wellcome can ensure that researchers in different fields and institutions network and come together when it's necessary. And they can be effective outside the typical scientific realm, in areas like public engagement and governmentequally critical when it comes to making real health gains.