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Dedicated funder to fill mental health gap

Wellcome Trust to seed foundation with £20m grant

A new mental health research funder is to be launched in 2013 with the help of a £20 million grant from the Wellcome Trust. The foundation plans to create a self-sustaining source of funds through investments and public donations, and will start work by offering early-career grants.

The charity’s board of trustees will be chaired by Dennis Stevenson, a crossbench peer and former chairman of Halifax Bank of Scotland, and will include Philip Campbell, editor of Nature, and Chris Fairburn, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. Its chief executive is Cynthia Joyce, a US citizen and former executive director of the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation, which raised $100m (£62m) during her tenure. Joyce will start work at offices in Clerkenwell, London, on 1 January.

The foundation was initially registered with the Charity Commission as Insight: Research for Mental Health, but Joyce told Research Fortnight she is working with brand consultants to find a different name.

The Institute of Social Psychiatry, which closed in 2011, has donated its remaining £966,161 to the cause. Founded in 1946 by psychiatrist Joshua Bierer, the ISP created day centres for patients with mental illnesses and awarded small grants to researchers.

“I was able to persuade my trustees that this was the right thing to do and our money would go to seeding the new foundation,” says its former chairman and retired psychiatrist Raghu Gaind. “All those years we had worked hard and created a nest egg.”

According to the Charity Commission documents, the foundation will “make investments from a position of knowledge and authority in any type of research that helps our understanding of the brain’s innate characteristics and responses to external influences in order to reduce the burden of psychiatric disorders”.

Beyond this, the foundation does not yet have a research agenda. “Our percentage of effort in all the areas is all to be determined,” says Joyce, who plans to meet researchers to generate ideas for programmes. “There’s going to be a lot of fact finding and a lot of trying to develop consensus about where best to invest the funds,” she says. “The community has very strong pulls in a lot of different directions and one of the things that we’re working on is where the best bang for our buck will be.”

Nevertheless, supporting early-career researchers is already a priority and this will be reflected in a programme to be launched next year. This focus has been welcomed by Diane Playford, a neurologist at University College London and a former trustee of the ISP. “You want to train up-and-coming, bright researchers and follow through with a training scheme beyond PhDs,” she says.

Others say the charity should focus on the social dimension of mental health disorders, and mental health in adolescents and the elderly. Social research and social interventions in mental health “fall between the stalls of other major funders”, says Martin Webber, a reader in social work at the University of York, who argues that a lot of researchers in his field “don’t have any opportunities at all”.

“It is really important that this is niche funding,” adds David Challis, director of the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the University of Manchester. “To develop what was the terrain of social psychiatry for today would be a huge development for our understanding of mental health.”

Joyce says she is “very much aware” of the competition among researchers for funding in mental health. She warns that £20m “will not go far” and wants to ensure that the foundation has a very public face to raise funds, tackle stigma and influence policy. It is not clear how much of the £20m start-up grant will be needed for this side of the foundation’s work.

Joyce acknowledges that crafting a public fundraising campaign for mental health research will be tricky. “There’s so little understood about raising money in the UK for this area,” she says.