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News and funding: The Wellcome Trust has recently expanded its Society and Ethics stream

The Wellcome Trust has recently expanded its Society and Ethics stream from a tight focus on bioethics to a much broader interest in the social, economic and cultural factors that influence health, biomedicine or health research.


Funding Streams 

Essentially, there are five potentially interesting streams within Society and Ethics:

  • § Strategic Awards: these are large scale grants that engage with the Trusts five ‘strategic challenges’.
  • § Investigator Awards: the Trust’s ‘flagship’ scheme, offering awards of between £500k-£1m over five years in three broad areas: new investigators, senior investigators and joint investigators. It had funded 17 awards in its first two years, to lawyers and philosophers, anthropologists and economists, sociologist and psychologists. It has recently moved from an annual application cycle to a six monthly one, with deadlines in March and September.
  • § University Awards: Unlike the investigator awards, these are aimed at those who are not in permanent academic posts. They are intended as a way into academia, and the host institution for this form of postdoctoral fellowship have to guarantee a permanent position to the award holder at the end of five years.
  • § Fellowships: another form of postdoc fellowships, but with no expectation of a permanent position at the end of it.
  • § Small grants: offer up to £5k with a rolling, monthly deadline. Outcome times are approximately 6 weeks, and success rates roughly 50%.

The Application

At the heart of the application form is a 3,000 word case for support.

  • § This needs to focus on a compelling research question. The whole application hinges on this, and it is this that the shortlisting panel will judge to decide whether the budget and timescale are justified, and whether it should be put forward to the interview stage.
  • § However, a strong research question needs to be coupled with a watertight methodology. You need to convince the panel that you have a well planned project with clear objectives and appropriate methods to provide answers.
  • § As with other funders, you need to write for a mixed audience. Paul put it succinctly: ‘assume intelligence but don’t assume knowledge.’
  • § Include advisory boards, particularly if there’s any area of weakness in your expertise, or if your project will inform policy or effect practitioners.

The Process 

All of the major schemes (other than for small scale funding, such as Small Grants) have a three part process:

  • § A preliminary outline: for some schemes this is mandatory (such as Fellowships); for others it is recommended. This is the point at which applicants can get feedback from the Trust on their research ideas. Is it worth exploring further? Officers might offer advice on how the full application should be prepared, in readiness for the second stage.
  • § Shortlisting: the full application is looked at by an Expert Review Group. They whittle down the list of applications, taking out half to two thirds of the applications.
  • § Interview: those left go through to interview. Of these, about half are funded. This gives an overall success rate of between 20-25%. The Trust will provide anonymised reviewers comments for unsuccessful applicants.

Whilst the Trust is happy for applicants to put in concurrent applications to the Research Councils or other funders if they are applying for Fellowship funding, they do not let them to do so if they are applying for standard grants.

The Future 

The Trust has clearly decided that the relationship between science and society is important. The broadening of this stream demonstrates that. Funding for the Society and Ethics is guaranteed until 2016, and the current Strategic Plan is due to run until 2020.

In the meantime, the Trust will on occasion offer specific calls. One such is the current Health Systems Research Initiative. This is intended to support research that will generate practical measure to improve health systems in low and middle income countries. Grants will be offered for between 1-5 yrs, £100-800k, £15m total. The call is looking for research that will inform evidence-based interventions or structural changes and be of direct relevance to decision makers and users in the field. The deadline will be in January.

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