Wellcome’s approach to funding longitudinal population studies 

Longitudinal population studies (LPS) are invaluable to health research. Read about our ongoing approach to supporting LPS and why it’s important to foster them all over the world.

Michael Dunn

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Wellcome’s approach to funding longitudinal population studies 
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LPS play a vital role in the research ecosystem, enabling researchers to study the complex and interconnected factors affecting health and disease.

Wellcome has played an influential role in the LPS field for many years. We have supported large biobased studies, focused cohorts, survey-based and landscaping studies. These, in turn, have led to groundbreaking discoveries and have influenced clinical practice, policy and societal behaviours.

Over the past year, we have been considering the important role of LPS in all of Wellcome’s strategic programmes. These are Discovery Research, Climate and Health, Infectious Disease and Mental Health. Through commissioned external activities, such as landscaping reviews and consultation with experts in the LPS field, we have identified opportunities that will guide our approach moving forward.

Wellcome’s role in the global LPS landscape 

We commissioned an external review of the challenges and emerging opportunities in the LPS field that have particular relevance to Wellcome.

This included mapping of the LPS that exist globally and characterisation of the LPS landscape. For the purposes of this review, we have focussed on large-scale, population-based longitudinal studies including cohorts, panel surveys and biobanks containing more than 8,000 participants and with repeat data collection rounds in the same individuals.

There are three routes through which we believe Wellcome can add value to the LPS field:   

Harnessing the power of LPS and diversifying the populations studied

By ensuring data is spread across a more diverse population, we can ensure findings generated from LPS bring benefit to more diverse and historically underserved populations. Similarly, achieving greater representation in our studies through both design and retention will enable broader generalisability – increasing the impact of findings relevant to the global population.

Catalysing areas of shared priority between Wellcome and the LPS field

  • Adoption of new technology and approaches can help to realise the potential of LPS by enhancing their utility across a broad range of use cases. This is particularly key to realising Wellcome's ambitions to use LPS across its strategic programmes such as finding new ways to link LPS with geospatial data to study the impact of climate change, exploring the bio-psycho-social model of mental health by ensuring mental health data is collected in datasets that also contain biological and social data.
  • Consent is critical to expand the pool of LPS participants and to enable future innovations, data usage and linkages. Wellcome can play a unique role in this field to engage policymakers, set standards with other funders and validate new consent models.
  • Participant engagement maximises the impact and ensures researchers are proposing the most relevant questions. Data from LPS must be accessible to researchers through a transparent, consistent and secure process.  
  • Data accessibility is important as it ensures researchers can better utilise the data for research, ensuring data linkages to health outcomes can be made and thus amplifying the study's impact. We will explore how we implement Wellcome’s data guidelines on open access and FAIR Data Principles, in practice. 

Improving coordination and alignment of standards 

Wellcome can play a unique role in the LPS ecosystem and improve the impact of these resources by ensuring they are discoverable and harmonised. We will continue to work with other funders to support sustainable and stable research. We will partner with them to further enable the field to develop new funding models and data access best practice. 

The findings from this review complement two focussed reviews on the role of LPS in relation to two of Wellcome’s strategic programmes — Mental Health and Climate and Health

Our future investment approaches for LPS 

For LPS to be truly impactful, they need to be ethically above reproach and have the trust and involvement of the participating community. All the studies we support will have Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) requirements.

These considerations produce better results that are more generalisable and reliable. Our support will include requirements for participant engagement and accessibility of data.

Anchor investments

We will support two to three anchor LPS investments that enable research and innovation across Wellcome’s Strategic Programmes. They will comprise the majority of our investment in the LPS field.

Anchor investments will meet the following criteria:

  • They can be a major single platform or an interconnected group of initiatives that collect longitudinal health information. 
  • Investments will be undertaken in partnership with other funders, have a clear commitment to long-term funding and an engaged partnership model. The sustainability of investments will be considered from the outset. 
  • Anchor investments will be carefully selected to ensure our portfolio is highly impactful and sufficiently diverse with respect to populations, geographies, and areas of discovery and innovation.

For example, we consider UK Biobank as an anchor investment. Others will be determined as our updated approach to LPS funding progresses.

Enrichment investments

As well as anchor investments, we will offer what we are calling enrichments. These awards will address a research gap or foster innovative tools and methodologies that are relevant to at least one of our strategic programmes.

An enrichment could be smaller scale core support or activity which builds on an existing LPS, whether the LPS is funded by Wellcome or not.

An example of an enrichment investment is C-GULL, a birth cohort study in Liverpool exploring the relationship between mental health and early childhood experiences. Another is the Born in Bradford study.

We fund enrichment investments through discretionary awards or directed calls. In addition, studies using LPS approaches or data to answer a specific research question may consider opportunities within the Discovery Research funding schemes.

We believe that bringing fields together, linking studies from different sources and embracing evolving data collection technologies leads to better research. We will continue to develop initiatives to support these innovations.

Ultimately, we hope these partnerships and our updated approach will lead to genuine change, greater insights into life, health and wellbeing and help to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. 

  • Michael Dunn

    Director of Discovery Research


    Michael is responsible for developing, managing and overseeing an exciting and world-leading portfolio of research at Wellcome. Before taking on the role of Director of Discovery Research he led the management of Wellcome’s Genetics and Molecular Sciences portfolio.