Trust hopes to end 'brain drain'

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The Independent Online
THE WELLCOME Trust hopes to revitalise biomedical research in Britain and help stop the 'brain drain' of scientists with tens of millions of pounds of extra cash raised in last weekend's sale of its shares in Wellcome, the drugs company.

The pounds 2bn sale of shares reduced the trust's stake in the company from just over 70 per cent to just over 40 per cent. The extra money the charity earns from dividends in a broader portfolio of shares will create a powerful rival to public sector funding of UK medical research.

Next year, the trust will have around pounds 220m at its disposal - double this year's resources. Much of this is thought to be earmarked for research. The Government's Medical Research Council will spend about pounds 195m on research in the same period.

Yesterday, the trust's director warned that its increasing wealth should not weaken government support for medical research in the universities. Bridget Ogilvie said: 'It is vital for the national interest that the government body funding research remains strong and competitive.'

The trust will concentrate spending in the UK at first, moving away from short-term contracts to offer scientists the stability, equipment and support that should keep them in Britain. The trust says that its researchers can expect to earn a premium of between 8 per cent and 18 per cent on top of nationally-agreed pay scales for academics.

'These are highly experienced, highly trained people but they always face an uncertain future, which must be wrong,' Dr Ogilvie said.

The trust has already persuaded one eminent British geneticist to stay in the face of tempting offers from the US. Dr John Sulston, from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, is to head a new centre for research on the human genome (the body's genetic blueprint) that Dr Ogilvie predicted would spend more than pounds 50m over five years, eventually employing 300 scientists. This will be known as the Sanger centre, after the double Nobel Laureate for chemistry, Fred Sanger. The MRC is to fund part of the work.

Such 'centres of excellence' will be a key focus for the charity's money, attracting international scientists. A leading American immunologist, Professor Douglas Fearon, has agreed to leave the US to head a Cambridge team of researchers supported by a pounds 3m grant.

Other spending plans include a scheme to help update equipment in universities, and expansion of the trust's work in tropical medicine, especially in the search for an effective anti-malarial drug.

The charity said it was keen to fund work which drug companies shy away from because they are 'not prepared to put money into diseases of the poor and developing countries'. Projects might include research on diabetes and cardiovascular diseases that manifest themselves differently in developed and developing nations.