Scientific endeavour needs more philanthropists

When there is no immediate commercial gain from such fundamental research, it is unrealistic to expect private companies to foot the bill

The super-rich have never been short of things to spend their money on. Some like country estates, others prefer super-yachts. A few turn to serious philanthropy, perhaps in the hope that their legacy will do some lasting good in the world after they are gone.

Sir Henry Wellcome, who died in 1936, is just such a one. Indeed, he can be thanked for leaving behind one of the greatest science-funding organisations in Britain, if not the world, in the form of the Wellcome Trust, a not-for-profit charity which spends more than £600m a year on medical research – more than the corresponding spend of the UK Government.

The Trust’s latest scientific success comes out of its Sanger Institute in Cambridge, where the first human genome was decoded more than a decade ago. Sanger scientists have discovered the key protein of the mammalian egg cell which identifies and binds to the sperm cell during the first moments of conception – with important implications for human fertility.

Without Henry Wellcome’s stipulation that his fortune be used in “the advance of medical and scientific research to improve mankind’s wellbeing”, it is questionable whether this discovery, and the many others funded by the Wellcome Trust, would have been done in the UK.

It is a fact that basic science – so-called “blue skies” research – can only be paid for either by the state and its taxpayers, or by the generosity of seriously wealthy individuals. When there is no immediate commercial gain from such fundamental research, it is unrealistic to expect private companies to foot the bill.

Sir Henry – who was born in the wild American West and came to Britain to peddle medicines at the end of the 19th century – was a philanthropist in the great tradition of the United States, even though he died in his adopted country a proud knight of the realm. America has produced more than its fair share of philanthropists, from John D Rockefeller to Bill Gates, and Sir Henry was one of them.

Where, then, are the great British philanthropists who are prepared to leave a legacy of scientific achievements, rather than a portfolio of Mayfair properties? Science needs them.

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