A Wellcome injection of funds

Tom Wilkie looks at a medical research charity that can outspend the Government
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The Independent Online
By the end of this month, the Wellcome Trust will be worth £6.8bn, following the sale to Glaxo of its remaining shares in the drugs company Wellcome plc. Once the cheque is in the bank, the Wellcome Trust will be the world's wealthiest medical research charity, far surpassing American foundations such as the Howard Hughes and the Rockefeller.

In Britain, on the basis of the assets it commands, the trust is bigger than the Pru, Tesco and ICI, and only just a bit smaller than Lloyds Bank. If it were a commercial company rather than a charity, it would rank 25th in the list of Britain's 100 wealthiest companies.

By the end of the month, the director of the trust, Dr Bridget Ogilvie, will be in a position to spend more on medical research in Britain than David Hunt, who, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is the cabinet minister with responsibility for science. Last year, more than 3,000 researchers drew their salaries courtesy of the trust.

The trust's income is about £300m, not all of which goes to the support of medical research. The organisation was set up under the terms of the will of Sir Henry Wellcome, the American-born founder of the Wellcome pharmaceutical company. Originally it was the sole shareholder in the company, but has divested itself gradually over recent years, investing the money more widely. The trust also supports work on the history of medicine and on public understanding of science generally. The massive Wellcome Building on Euston Road in London houses not only the administrative headquarters of the trust and its own Institute for the History of Medicine, but also a big interactive "hands-on" public exhibition about human biology and medical science.

The exhibition is an obligatory destination for school parties. Some idea of the lavishness with which the building is appointed can be gained from the comments of a group from Birmingham overheard last week. Even the taps in the lavatories, they averred, were gold- plated. (This is not true, but the bronze and marble interior suggests that little expense has been spared in the refurbishment.)

From her large corner office on the first floor, Dr Ogilvie reckons that she will have about 20 per cent more money to spend next year, once the proceeds from the sale of shares has been received. But she is reluctant to discuss plans. "It would be irresponsible if I told you now what I was to do with it." Nor will she address directly the relation between government funding of medical science and that of the trust. The Medical Research Council, which distributes government money to researchers, is in principle publicly accountable, through Mr Hunt, to Parliament and the taxpayer. The trust is accountable only to its trustees.

Suggestions that the trust is in effect providing deficit finance - money that the Government should, but won't, cough up - evoke little response. But if she does not state her position directly, it is clear that Dr Ogilvie believes that the Government is mistakenly becoming too short-termist and too applied in its funding policies.

The trust's "more stable asset base" will "help us to think strategically and long term". More than a third of the trust's grants are for five years or more - "that has to be a strength: it gives people thinking time and the opportunity to do risky rather than safe research". She adds, "I get irritated when you hear this nonsense about basic or strategic or applied research. They're all interconnected. One of the worrying things about government policy is that they're not looking far enough ahead. You have got to have a long-term perspective."

She points out that 15 years or so ago, no one could see the point in researchers working on retroviruses - until the Aids epidemic, when it all became very relevant because the agent of disease, HIV, is a retrovirus. It is important that research councils be allowed to fund such work, Dr Ogilvie believes, because of the need to maintain national competences. "One of the problems with responding to the marketplace all the time is that you can discover you have no seedcorn when faced with new problems."

Despite her choice of the disease as an example, Aids is one area of research that the trust does not fund. Cancer research is a second major omission. In both cases, the rationale is that there is plenty of money for these subjects from other sources. But it is hard to maintain rigid distinctions. The trust funded a survey of the nation's sexual habits that was deemed imperative for understanding the likely spread of Aids - research which had been personally vetoed by Mrs Thatcher. As for the trust's future relationship with the Government, Dr Ogilvie stresses the word "partnership" - much used by Mr Hunt. With the MRC, it is jointly funding the Sanger Research Centre at Cambridge, where fundamental work is done on DNA and genetics. And for the future, the governors and director of the trust "think we are accountable as custodians and want to leave to our successors an asset base which has been looked after, so that subsequent generations will benefit from Henry Wellcome's legacy."