Interview Paul Woodgate from the Wellcome Trust

Paul Woodgate July 2014

Interview time! We got some nice feedback about the interview we did with the with EPSRC Assistive Sandpit organiser Anna Angus-Smyth – it turns out that my PhD and postdoc readers quite enjoy finding out what makes funders tick.  So today we have an interview with Paul Woodgate from the Wellcome Trust- who I’m interviewing about the Bioethics work that the Wellcome Trust funds.  Enjoy!


Me: So The Wellcome Trust have funded a wide range of projects from the classically medical ‘ Coma, Consciousness and Serious Brain Injury: medical humanities and decision making’, to the much more social and immediate ‘Interpreting the Mental Capacity Act (2005) in mental health care.’, however there does appear to be a slant in the projects towards clinically-focused research rather than looking at existing bioethical issues in the general population, is this the result of the trust’s general focus or is it more that such applications tend to be much bigger, longer-term and more naturally suited to larger funders like the Wellcome Trust?

Paul: There is certainly no clinical preference, in fact one of our motivations in recently expanding the remit/parameters of this funding stream to support research that ‘seeks to consider social, economic and cultural factors that influence health, biomedical or health research, the development and implementation of healthcare practices, and health interventions’ is with population level issues in mind.  One example of a research that has recently been support that might fit into this category is David Stuckler’s Social welfare and public health: analysing quasi-natural experiments from the 2007 recession.  Aside from setting out these broad parameters, we are mainly a response mode funder.  That is to say researchers are invited to apply around any theme they wish (so long as it is health or wellbeing related); our Committees judge what the best proposals are.

Me: One of the problems of scientific reporting is that flashy graphics and (interesting) toys like 3d-printing tend to get all of the media coverage, while some areas such as Bioethics are inherently ‘unsexy’ from a media perspective – with that in mind, what’s the project that you’ve been involved with that you think the public should really know about?

Paul: Professor Theresa Marteau’s Centre for the study of incentives in health is a large award we funded in 2008 and an excellent example of interdisciplinary working.  The three main partners on this programme, a psychologist, a philosopher and an economist took as a starting point that Governments increasingly use financial and ‘payment in kind’ incentives to encourage people to act in individually and socially beneficial ways, particularly in the context of health policy. Yet even when effective in changing behaviour, such approaches have attracted strong criticism for being coercive and undermining autonomy, personal responsibility and equity.  The integrated programme of research at the Centre for the Study of Incentives in Health (CSI Health) examined these criticisms from a range of disciplinary perspectives, in order to address the central question: when is it right to use financial incentives to improve health?  One particularly well reported case study/experiment they investigated/undertook was about whether it is right and indeed whether it is effective to incentivise pregnant women not to smoke by giving them food vouchers.  This type of research covers issues which the public would find engaging and could inform future policy making in public health.

Me: A common criticism of long-term academic projects is that there is comparatively little oversight and evaluation of how effectively universities are spending their money – with a surprising number coming nowhere near the grand plans of their original outline. I wonder if we could put a more positive spin on this – can you tell me about a Wellcome Trust project that wildly exceeded it’s initial ambitions?

Paul: There is always risk involved when we fund a research project.  One benefit of being a well resourced independent charity is that we can take maybe greater risks than public or smaller funders.  Our Committees still need to be convinced that proposals are feasible but will consciously take risks.  Of course a consequence of funding ambitious and innovative projects is that sometimes the outputs do fall short.  Two examples of people who’ve exceeded:

Madeleine Campbell Bioethical decision making in the clinical practice of assisted reproductive techniques in non-human mammals.  Dr Campbell has a particular interest in equine reproduction (where bioethical analyses have been surprisingly rare) and the uses of animals in entertainment.  The detail of what this grantholder initially proposed is confidential but if you take a look at her Royal Veterinary College homepage you’ll see an array of activities in which she is involved which have certainly exceeded expectations. You could say Madeleine was a good horse to back.

Tom Douglas The Dual-Use Dilemma in Biomedical Science: An Ethical Analysis.  With this fellowship the Wellcome Trust undoubtedly backed one of the world’s leading early career bioethicists.  Dr Douglas found in favour of a qualified position on the dual use dilemma (that scientists should take into account the potential for misuse of their work); against many of the objections to the use of synthetic biology; and qualified support for the voluntary use of neuroenhancements.  He published about of these findings and not exclusively with colleagues from his own centre.  He actually generated sixteen peer reviewed articles and five book chapters in three years which is a very high level of productivity.  He has since obtained a larger, early-mid career targeted grant (a New Investigator Award) to support a project entitled Neurointerventions in Crime Prevention: An Ethical Analysis.

Me: Many of my readers are early (and some not quite so early) stage researchers who are well aware of how competitive your application process is – what’s the one thing that you see in funding applications that you really wish applicants would avoid?

Paul: How long have you got?  Seriously, you’ve asked for one thing to avoid so I’ll offer one rather than a long list of dos and don’ts.  Please ensure that when you submit a proposal (even if it is just an outline) that you avoid a situation where someone reviewing it has to keep re-reading it in order to understand what it is that you are trying to do.  In other words please do not assume any knowledge on behalf of the reader!  One way of avoiding this pitfall is to ensure that you share your project description with people who do not work in your field before you submit it to us.

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