Press release

Wellcome sets new direction to tackle urgent health challenges worldwide

Wellcome today launches a new approach to support science in solving some of the biggest health threats facing people across the world with a co-ordinated global effort.

The new strategy will give researchers the freedom to make discoveries that change the way we see the world, and focus Wellcome’s expertise in science, advocacy and innovation on addressing three urgent health challenges that affect everyone in every part of the globe. 

Wellcome will fund a broad programme of discovery research across a wide range of disciplines with the potential to make unanticipated discoveries about life, health and wellbeing.  

Alongside this, Wellcome will lead ambitious programmes designed to inspire and implement solutions to three of the most pressing health challenges facing the world today: 

  • Infectious diseases: Wellcome will work with communities affected by escalating infectious diseases, including the rise of drug-resistant infections. This programme will target research and resources to inform local, national and international actions needed to prevent, prepare for, and respond to these threats.  
  • Mental health: Wellcome will pull disparate scientific and clinical fields together for a united research effort that will accelerate the development of better treatments. People with lived experience of mental health issues will be central to this work.  
  • Global heating: This programme will work with the communities most affected by climate change to explore the harmful effects of global heating on health, and drive research to develop new ways of protecting people’s health.  

Overall, Wellcome’s charitable spend is expected to continue broadly in line with recent years (charitable spend in 2018-19 was £1.1bn). How this is spent in the future will be determined as the detailed strategy and the goals of the programmes are established over the coming months. 

Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome said: "This is a critical moment in shaping the future of Wellcome and our commitment to addressing some of the urgent health challenges we face. As an independent charitable foundation, distributing over £1 billion a year, we have a responsibility to ensure our funding makes the biggest possible impact in the areas that will benefit most. After extensive consultation with researchers worldwide, we’ve settled on discovery research, infectious diseases, global heating and mental health as the four key areas for us. 

"Wellcome can give researchers the freedom to follow their curiosity wherever it takes them, and we can lead activities that allow society to get the best from science in the search for better health with these strategic areas of focus. Doing both means each approach can inform and inspire the other, leading to more discoveries, more tools and insights, a richer understanding of the world, and better solutions to the urgent health challenges we all face."

Science review 

This new direction for Wellcome builds on the findings from a review launched in late 2018 to look at Wellcome’s ambition for the next 10-15 years and what major scientific and health challenges it should look to overcome.  

The review concluded that Wellcome-funded science should enable science and innovation to tackle the greatest threats facing humanity, and that it should do so through discovery research, together with research directed specific health challenges. 

Three criteria were used to determine the health challenges Wellcome should focus on: the urgency and scale of the threat, the opportunity for Wellcome to lead the way and make a difference and the ability to harness what makes Wellcome unique. 

Jim Smith, who led the science review team, said: "In carrying out our review we spoke to people from different parts of the world, from different fields, and from different career stages. I’m so grateful to them all – their contributions were incredibly thoughtful and incredibly valuable. 

"One of the clear messages we received was that the most transformative discoveries come from curiosity-driven research, and we’ll continue to fund this, encouraging new multidisciplinary approaches and making sure we support those in the early stages of their careers. 

"We also agreed that the time was right for Wellcome to use all the expertise at its disposal to address three specific health challenges: escalating infectious disease, mental health, and the impact of climate change on health. Each of these represents a global and urgent risk to human wellbeing, and each will affect most severely those in resource-poor settings."

A focus on research culture 

Wellcome’s recent work into research culture highlighted the systemic challenges and barriers to a healthy and productive research environment. To address this Wellcome’s new approach will draw on a more diverse pool of talent, look to make science a more stable and enjoyable career and tackle the negative aspects of research culture. We’ll put more support behind researchers in the earlier stages of their career and those establishing their independence. 

Jim Smith added: "Embedded across the new strategy will be efforts to improve research culture. We want science to be a career open to everyone. By giving researchers the freedom to ask the most exciting questions, supported with career development and good leadership, everyone should benefit from Wellcome-funded research."

To achieve this Wellcome will switch to a new, simplified set of funding schemes designed to encourage a broader range of applications, give researchers more freedom, time and resource to pursue their ideas and build a better research culture. The new schemes will open for applications in summer 2021, replacing our existing schemes which will wind down over the course of 2021.  

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