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Attn: Incoming director, the Wellcome Trust

One of the world’s largest science funders will soon have a new leader, as Mark Walport leaves the Wellcome. Research Fortnight asked former director Mike Dexter to give some advice to whoever gets the job.

Congratulations on landing one of the most exciting, fulfilling and demanding jobs in science funding. The pay’s not bad, either. Unlike the coalition government, you won’t find a note on your desk saying “Sorry, there’s no money left”. Rather, the trust’s investment division has continued to outperform the market, and the cash flow is healthy.

Moreover, you have inherited well-trained staff, many of whom had illustrious careers before joining Wellcome. Together with the chairman, governors and external advisers, you have a formidable team at your back. But it will be you making the toughest calls, dealing with crises, and balancing and often resisting the different calls on the trust’s funds and attention.

In 2010, Wellcome published a 10-year strategic plan. Don’t worry: the scientific challenges it raises are the general and obvious ones shared by other funding bodies, so you still have the flexibility to elaborate on your own vision. Your challenge will be to identify how the trust can most effectively use its resources and influence to achieve the best outcomes in these areas, while keeping your eyes peeled for all those sudden opportunities that are bound to arise, often in the most unlikely of situations.

The ability to respond rapidly to a new opportunity within the remit of science funding, education or the history of medicine is embedded in the culture of the trust. In such circumstances, non-committed funds can be released. This was an issue that arose while I was director and we faced the possibility of the human genome being patented and commercialised. The Medical Research Council was partly funding the initial stages of the genome-sequencing programme at the Sanger Centre outside Cambridge, but lacked the spare cash to increase UK sequencing capacity. So the trust acted to provide the funds required to rapidly ramp up sequencing activity, and the rest is history.

But financial clout brings risks as well as opportunities. The trust, quite rightly, promotes national and international partnerships to achieve its objectives and make the best use of financial resources. This leads scientific communities to expect funding to continue until projects reach their desired outcome.

What happens if one of your funding partners falls upon hard times? Will the trust be strong-armed into taking more of the financial burden of the programme onto its books? You must be prepared to disappoint. There may be causes that, however deserving, the trust should not, or cannot, underwrite.

Also, although sometimes a new institute or unit will be needed to tackle a specific research activity, disease, health issue or technology, do not forget that science begets science. Research almost always leads to further questions that bring with them the expectation of further funding. The danger is that more and more money will be sucked into institutionalised projects, to the detriment of the wider world. My service on the research councils taught me the perils of this, and the importance of having an exit strategy.

At present, about 15 per cent of the trust’s annual spending, around £117 million, goes on the Genome Campus, funding wages and pensions and maintaining equipment and infrastructure. This is money well spent, based upon the quality of the science coming out of the campus. Nonetheless, a fall in the trust’s investment income would present tough choices. All the research councils have faced, and are facing, such unhappy scenarios. Handling the culture of dependency that has grown up around Wellcome’s funding of biomedical research in the UK will remain an important aspect of the director’s work.

In the past, the trust has been efficient at leveraging funds from government and other non-governmental organisations and charitable foundations, to encourage and promote research and infrastructure in areas of shared interest. In some of these partnerships, particularly those with political and socioeconomic implications, the director can face pressure to pursue an outcome that, although credible, is not the strongest scientifically. Dancing with the wolves, all alpha males and alpha females, can be entertaining, but all have their own agenda and the challenge is to emerge with yours intact.

Finally, among the most important activities of the Wellcome Trust are its units overseas, which deliver huge value for money in terms of both actual and potential health benefits. Their work shows that relatively modest sums can have far-reaching consequences, and might act as an example to others nearer to home.

So, keep the trust lean, free of bureaucracy and as approachable as ever, but do watch your waistline—the dinners can be quite challenging.

Mike Dexter is emeritus professor at the University of Manchester, and was director of the Wellcome Trust from 1998 to 2003.