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Wellcome shake-up leaves ‘gap’ in funding that is ‘starting to hurt’

Senior figures say removal of dedicated funding stream puts clinical researchers at a disadvantage

Research leaders have expressed concern over the removal of grant schemes for clinical researchers by health-research funder Wellcome, with one expert saying the move has left a “gap” in UK research funding that is “starting to hurt”.

The concerns follow recent warnings from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee about an “alarming” decline in the clinical academic workforce.

The Wellcome issue stems from a shake-up in 2021, when the UK-based charity made major changes to its grant schemes as part of a new strategy that simplified the funding it offers.

These changes included combining separate grants it previously offered to clinical and non-clinical scientists under a single ‘discovery research’ scheme.

Dropping separate grants for clinical researchers has meant that Wellcome “has lost the explicit commitment to supporting people through a lifetime of clinical science careers in the UK, as they used to do to great effect”, said Stephen O’Rahilly, co-director of the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge.

“It’s just a puzzle to me why that wasn’t continued,” O’Rahilly told Research Professional News.

Competitive disadvantage

Along with six members of his institute, O’Rahilly had previously held a Wellcome-funded senior clinical research fellowship, but he said there is no equivalent under Wellcome’s new system.

Wellcome now offers awards for early career, mid-career and established researchers from any discipline including clinical sciences, but O’Rahilly said that clinical researchers will be less experienced compared with scientists from other fields due to time spent on medical training.

“The chances of them being competitive with basic scientists are far less,” O’Rahilly said.

“I’d be delighted if I was proved to be wrong, but I’ve heard some expressions of concern about the number of clinician scientists applying to [Wellcome] for these mid-career awards.”

Wellcome ‘remains committed’

Wellcome director Jeremy Farrar said on social media that Wellcome “remains committed to supporting clinicians and health professionals” and would monitor applications to its schemes from clinicians.

Michael Dunn, director of discovery research at Wellcome, told Research Professional News that the funder “warmly and enthusiastically” welcomes applications from clinicians.

“People on the frontline of healthcare have unparalleled insights into real-world research needs, and we’re eager to support them by funding imaginative research projects and including them in our decision-making,” Dunn said.

“We also know clinical careers can pose challenges for those wanting to carry out research and so we will continue to work with partners in the wider ecosystem to tackle some of these barriers.”

Funding gap

Wiebke Arlt, the newly appointed director of MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences at Imperial College London, also expressed concern that clinical researchers would have a “limited chance” of winning funding under Wellcome’s new system.

“You need the diversity in funding schemes to be able to supply diversity to the research environment,” Arlt said, adding that Wellcome’s change to its schemes “reveals a gap in funding that is now starting to hurt”.

In particular, Arlt said that funding for clinical researchers who were doing experimental medicine projects and human in vivo physiology studies is limited from other funders such as the Medical Research Council.

“We painfully feel that this capacity is not there anymore,” Arlt said.

An MRC spokesperson said that the funder supports clinical careers at all stages through its grants including the “MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship, which is a scheme designed to support talented, clinically active healthcare professionals [to] make the transition to independent investigator”.

The next round of the MRC scheme, which offers funding for up to five years, will open on 10 February, it added.

A version of this article appeared in Research Fortnight