OVERVIEW: Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) focuses on backing individual researchers and boosting the field of science research by addressing its weak spots. It mostly funds researchers through competitive awards, but also give a handful of grants to nonprofits working to improve the general environment of science. Eligibility and application deadlines vary by award program.
IP TAKE: BWF grants go to both early-stage and accomplished researchers, with an emphasis on biology and medical research. Access to these awards goes through university deans or department heads, who nominate researchers, but program staff still offer guidance.
PROFILE: The story behind this active and highly structured science grantmaker dates back to 19th-century England, when Silas Burroughs and Henry Wellcome started a business to seize upon the revolution of compressed pills in medicine. Decades later, the American branch of the Burroughs Wellcome Co. launched this foundation based in North Carolina (not to be confused with the Wellcome Trust in the UK). Since then, the pharma company was absorbed into what is now GlaxoSmithKline, and the foundation was split off in the 1990s to be fully independent of any corporate backing.
The Burroughs Wellcome Fund works to strengthen the overall field of science research by helping early career scientists and by supporting fields that are currently underdeveloped. The areas the fund supports are mostly related to biology or medical research, including infectious diseases and reproductive science, but it also has some niche interests, such as genomics, computer modeling, and improving science regulatory policy decisions.
This manifests almost entirely in competitive, peer-reviewed awards that are decided on a schedule of cycles by advisory boards, separate from the foundation’s board of directors. They’re mostly six-figure, multi-year grants, hovering around $500,000 and peaking at $750,000.
Most awards go through academic institutions, as the deans or department heads make nominations and receive the awards on behalf of the researchers. The fund also places an emphasis on early career scientists, with some awards restricted to those within a set number of years from their post-grad degrees.
For researchers, the key grant areas fall under the following programs:
The Biomedical Sciences program supports “the development of the next generation of academic medical scientists,” which it does by “providing funding to help bridge the gap between the postdoctoral and early faculty years.” Within this program is its Career Award for Medical Scientists, a “$700,000 awards over five years for physician-scientists” to help “bridge the gap” between postdoctoral work and independent research.
Also within BWFs biomedical sciences program is the Collaborative Research Travel Grants. Awards for up to $15,000 are given “in support for relatively unrestricted travel funds to academic scientists and trainees (postdocs or fellows) at U.S. or Canadian degree-granting institutions.”
The Infectious Diseases program’s Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease award offers “$500,000 over five years to support accomplished investigators at the assistant professor level” who “focus primarily on the interplay between human and microbial biology.”
Burroughs Wellcome is also interested in supporting cross-disciplinary efforts within the sciences. To that end, its Interfaces in Science program offers a Career Award of “$500,000 over five years to bridge advanced postdoctoral training and the first three years of faculty service” to scientists with backgrounds in “physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering who want to explore the new frontier of biology.”
In the area of Population Sciences, Burroughs Wellcome’s Institutional Program Unifying Population and Laboratory Based Sciences gives “$500,000 a year to bridge the gap between the population and computational sciences and the laboratory-based biological sciences,” which it does through “the training of researchers between existing concentrations of research strength in population approaches to human health and in basic biomedical sciences.”
One unique area the fund supports is regulatory science. Its Innovation in Regulatory Science program give grantees upwards of “$500,000 over five years” towards working on “new methodologies or innovative approaches in regulatory science that will ultimately inform the regulatory decisions the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others make.”
The fund also supports research in reproductive science. Its Preterm Birth Initiative offers upwards of $600,000 over four years to “increase the understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying parturition and spontaneous preterm birth,” defined as birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
Lastly in the research realm is the Translational Research grant program. Initially geared at mid-career scientists, the program is now dedicated to “providing early-career support for physician scientists.”
In addition to research support, the foundation makes a small number of non-competitive, or ad hoc grants, to nonprofits that serve its mission. The fund also has a program dedicated to increasing the number of postdoctoral fellows coming from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups, one for career preparedness and job training, and a third dedicated to various efforts at increasing children’s exposure to an interest in science and mathematics.
Burroughs Wellcome Fund's grantmaking process is fairly structured but relatively transparent. While most grants are set up in award form, with nominations coming from universities and going before independent panels, it’s still a good idea to reach out to program staff. The foundation, in fact, invites potential awardees to run their work by the staff overseeing the awards to help determine the likelihood of winning (provided that your question is not already answered in the FAQs section that can be found under each program). Potential applicants are invited to contact them directly, or participate in scheduled conference calls.
- Rolly Simpson, Senior Program Officer, Biomedical Sciences and Reproductive Sciences
- Victoria McGovern, Senior Program Officer, Career Guidance, Infectious Diseases, Population and Laboratory Based Sciences
- Rusty Kelley, Program Officer, Interfaces in Science, Regulatory Science, Translational Research