What do plastic-eating enzymes, cancer-treating antibodies and DNA-processing proteins from a malaria parasite all have in common?
They are all recent discoveries with huge potential to improve human health.
They were also all discovered using the Diamond Light Source – an advanced scientific imaging machine 10,000 times more powerful than a traditional microscope.
When we helped to fund and launch this facility in 2002, we didn’t know what breakthroughs it would lead to, but we did know that its pioneering technology would unlock endless possibilities for researchers all over the world.
Wellcome's independence puts us in a unique position to be able to take a very long-term perspective on the biggest challenges in research. Projects like the Diamond Light Source show just how important this approach can be.
Ask big questions
The way that we fund Discovery Research is split into two streams:
- Discovery Research Awards are for researchers who apply to Wellcome schemes with their own ideas, for example through our Early-Career, Career Development and Discovery Awards.
- Directed funding is our way of tackling big research challenges that require more sizeable focus – like how we increase our understanding of genome biology or create reference maps of all human cells.
Fundamentally, our directed funding is designed to help unblock progress in different areas of research.
This might mean we target certain obstacles that are holding a field back, bring together multi-disciplinary teams around outstanding questions or new challenges, pursue areas of policy advocacy or develop agenda-driving research environments.
The exploratory research, resources, tools and technology that we support are wide-ranging but united by a focus on establishing diverse and creative environments in which bold, 'big question' research can thrive.
Build partnerships that drive research forward
One way that we tackle these big questions is by investing in key partnerships that align with our priorities and values.
From funding a major institution like the Wellcome Sanger Institute to building transformative and cutting-edge capabilities with initiatives like the UK Biobank, these partnerships allow research to happen at a scale or speed that was previously not possible.
An example of our directed funding.
Over the past 15 years, UK Biobank has collected data on the health and lifestyle of half a million people in the UK. It is the world’s most comprehensive source of health data used for research, including the largest-by-far whole genome sequence data set of its 500,000 participants. This invaluable resource is accessible to researchers worldwide to power scientific discoveries that improve human health.
Our major partnerships do this by creating supportive, well-resourced research environments for individuals, especially those at the early career stage, to develop and to drive their research agendas forward.
Crucially, these environments give researchers the flexibility to pursue more creative avenues and take more risks. Both factors we believe are important in achieving significant shifts in our understanding of health, life and wellbeing.
Advance infrastructure to unlock better research
For most researchers, the ability to leverage up-to-date databases, sample collections or longitudinal population data is crucial to advance their own programmes.
That’s why, alongside our major partnerships, we also invest in improving the infrastructure on which all researchers rely.
For example, we might support innovation in bioimaging methodologies, technologies and infrastructure or stimulate the development of physical resources or data analytics.
African Population Cohort Consortium (APCC)
An example of our directed funding – launched in 2022.
The APCC’s mission is to leverage the power of diversity in populations to improve our understanding of life, health and wellbeing in Africa and globally. The team will develop a framework for the coordination of large longitudinal population studies, which will track the health, risk factors and exposures of groups of people, across Africa, over time.
Investments like these allow researchers all over the world to better inform their research programmes, and ultimately further our understanding of how life works and guide better health outcomes, policies and interventions.
Why is directed funding a focus for us?
Over the next ten years, we have committed to spend £16 billion to advance discoveries and take on the world’s most pressing health issues.
Directed funding is an important part of this commitment.
For example, over the next year, we plan to invest £65 million in platforms that tackle some of the barriers preventing progress on important research questions in specific fields of research.
Whether driving the genomics revolution or uncovering new approaches to tackling infectious diseases, there are countless examples of how directed funding has helped to probe and understand how the human body works and drive major advances.
We will continue to support initiatives that give researchers the freedom to ask bold questions and the tools, technologies and thriving research environments to make more serendipitous discoveries.
This article was first published on 13 October 2022.