Friday, 10 March 2017

Notes from Wellcome Trust Visit

The self-styled 'largest owner of marinas in the UK' came to the University last month to talk about what was on the Wellcome horizon, but also offered help and advice for potential applicants.

Roger Blake, the External Liaison Manager, and Paul Woodgate, the Portfolio Developer for Humanities and Social Science, started by outlining some recent and imminent changes at the Trust.

Looking forward
  • New Strategic Approach: whilst previously they had been a fundamentally 'responsive mode' funder, the Trust recently adopted a new three-strand strategic approach; 
    • Advancing Ideas: still retaining their funding for responsive mode projects at the same level, but
    • Seizing Opportunities: by introducing more 'managed programmes' in areas that would benefit from investment. These would be identified internally, and there wouldn't be the same extensive consultation as for, say, the EPSRC's Shaping Capability exercise. Two such areas, in the forthcoming year, would be tackling epidemics and drug-resistant infections
    Roger and the new strategic approach
    • Driving Reform: by engaging more politically, such as giving evidence to select committees (see Maddy Bell's post on 'impacting parliament'). They talked euphemistically about championing science through 'changing times'. More specifically, they wish to ensure that the government does all that it can to ensure that UK scientists still have acccess to H2020, and for there to be no barriers to people coming over to the UK to do research. Wellcome is a global funder, although 80% of its funding does get spent in the UK. Nevertheless, this may mean funding for foreign nationals in the UK: 25-30% of fellowships go to non-UK academics. The results of the EU referendum are already having an effect on its work: applications from non-UK EU students for Wellcome PhDs has dropped by half. 
  • Reintroducing Innovation Funding: it may come as a surprise to many that Wellcome has, in recent years, provided relatively little funding for innovation and translational work. This is set to change, with a promise of £500m for innovation over the next five years. This will primarily be through the 'Innovator Awards', which will initially be focussed on mental health, neurological disorders and neglected tropical diseases. More information will be available shortly, but they are expecting a strong interest in this scheme, and competition to be fierce as a result. 
  • Reintroducing Small Grants: whilst the number of awards in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) make up a fifth of the total Wellcome portfolio, they only account for 5% in terms of value. SSH research tends to be less expensive than in the sciences, and in the past the small grants scheme has been a useful 'kick start' to a lot of promising research. These will be relaunched next month, and it is thought that they will be larger, but that they will be more competitive. 
    Paul Woodgate
  • Hub Award Competition: On the fifth floor of the Wellcome Building is a research space intended for collaborative interdisciplinary awards. The Trust runs a biennial competition to use this space, offering £1m of funding. The third competition is due to open shortly, and there may be information events and workshops around this. 
From there, Roger and Paul were joined by colleagues at Kent who have had experience of getting funding from the Trust (Emilie Cloatre, KLS), or sat on the Wellcome expert review groups (Ben Baumberg Geiger, SSPSSR, and Julie Anderson, History). They covered both the process through which applications are assessed, and some thoughts on what to look out for when applying.

Applying to Wellcome: what actually happens

All three academics recognised that Wellcome was a 'fair and flexible' funder, unfettered by the politics and nervousness that beset some others, and was generally inclusive and generous. Ben gave the example of times when the panel questioned whether an application was really within the scope of a call, but Wellcome officers encouraged them to allow it. When an application goes to the expert group, it is dealt with as follows;

  • Before the meeting: members receive all the applications for that round (generally around 30), and have to 'lead' on half of them. They then have to 'second' others, but are expected to have looked at all of them. They send their scores in to Wellcome, and these are collated prior to the meeting. The scores are within a 0-3 range, with 0 being 'don't interview' and 3 definitely do.
  • At the meeting: if there is consensus around the 0s and 3s, there is generally little or no discussion of them. For the rest, the two nominated members introduce their applications, and they discuss the merits of each (see below for what they look out for in an application, and what has the potential to sink it). 
  • After the meeting: those applicants that the panel agreed should go to interview (only about 30% of the original number) are invited for a formal conversation with Wellcome. Feedback is given, and details of the interview panel (of around 20 members) is set out. At the same time external reviews are sought. 

Hints and Tips

Across the course of the day all the speakers offered useful advice for those planning to apply. This included:

  • Talk to them: the Trust is unusual in encouraging potential applicants to discuss their proposals prior to submission. However, relatively few applicants (Roger thought around a quarter to a third) do so. 'Do whatever you can to have the best chance you can,' he suggested - and that includes getting informed advice on your proposal. In addition, talk to your colleagues, and get help in preparing. Emilie went through two mock interviews before her Wellcome Investigator interview, and had 'hyper-prepared', preempting 40 pages of potential questions. A little extreme, maybe, but - once again - you need to 'do whatever you can to have the best chance you can.'
  • Write for the committee: 'an application is a piece of rhetoric to persuade people in the process,' suggested Ben, and as such it should be framed for the specific needs of the audience. The expert group members are generalists, so make sure you write in a way that generalists will understand but with 'enough small nods' to cutting edge research to demonstrate knowledge and engagement with it. After all, if the group gives it the nod, it will go out to expert reviewers (see above), so needs to satisfy people with a disciplinary knowledge as well. Roger concurred: you need to give sufficient information for reviewers to understand what is proposed, what approaches will be taken, and whether it will work. In addition, make sure that you properly proof read your application. It's not a dealbreaker, but irritates the committee unnecessarily, and suggests that you do not have an eye for detail or an ability to manage your material. 
  • Risk-taking, but firmly grounded: Wellcome is more willing to take risks, but that doesn't mean it'll fund bad proposals. Your application needs to combine novelty, ambition, feasibility. evidence that you can do what is proposed and deal with any setbacks. And remember to make clear why your research matters, and why those outside the discipline should care. Which leads on to the next point: 
  • Right question, right person, right place: your application has to have all three. You need to offer a question which is novel and excites, but also demonstrate that your the right person with an appropriate track record working in a supportive institution who can answer that question. Proposals generally fail if any one of these three elements fails to impress. 
  • Don't try and be someone that you're not. You may think that you need to impress across a range of disciplines or, if you work in SSH, that you need to be more 'sciencey'. However, work to your strengths and don't pretend to be someone you are not. 
  • Be clear in your question. As Julie put it, think, 'what do I want to know?' It's easy to get wrapped up in the detail and lose the focus and aim of the whole project. 
  • Proposed costs are not really important to the expert group, and there is not a set amount of money they're working with. However, do check with colleagues and Research Services that you're not doing something really outrageous. 
  • Public engagement: don't try and do too much. Public engagement is important, but is time consuming and exhausting, and the committee will recognise if you're overstretching yourself. 
  • Early career fellowships must demonstrate independence: ideally, for the Henry Wellcome and Henry Dale fellowships you should move away from under the wing of your supervisor or mentor. This may well mean moving institution, but should at least mean moving group or school and demonstrating that you're finding your own feet. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this very interesting piece. Hope you are well - all good thoughts from Copenhagen :-)