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An interview with Simon Kay

Research is a global activity not restricted by geographical boundaries and talented researchers with good ideas need research funding that helps their work transcend borders and further knowledge.

The UK-based Wellcome Trust is one of the largest independent global charities supporting research in the UK and internationally. Dr Simon Kay, the Head of International Operations and Partnerships at the Wellcome Trust, recently visited the Bangalore Life Science Cluster along with Dr Shahid Jameel, the CEO of the WT-DBT India Alliance. Dr Kay currently leads the Wellcome Trust's global capacity building initiatives, including the India Alliance and was on campus to interact with a group of NCBS and inStem researchers receiving funding support from the Wellcome Trust and the WT-DBT India Alliance.

The Wellcome Trust is well-known for its global presence in research funding. What is the Wellcome Trust's broad philosophy on the subject of international programs?

The philosophy of the Wellcome Trust starts with "Good health makes people better". We have just spent a year reviewing our strategic approach since we still have to be clear that the Wellcome Trust exists to make health better. It is almost as simple as that - and the main route to doing that is by funding research. I think that by funding very good people, and funding very good ideas with curious people, we will get results.

We have almost stopped using the word "international" now because we see ourselves as a global organisation. We are based in the UK and so we have a responsibility to fund research in the UK, but we very much see ourselves as a global organisation. We have to make some tough choices about where we fund. Right now, about 80% of our funding goes to the UK, but out of the remaining 20%, a major part of our funding essentially goes to Africa, India and South-East Asia. This still means that there are large parts of the world where we do not fund into yet, but we are a very well-resourced organisation, and our plan over the next 5 years is to spend 5 billion pounds in supporting research.

How does the Trust decide what science to fund and where to fund it?

I would say that we don't. I think that with a lot of the science we fund, we depend on the researchers to come up with good ideas. So, for example, I do nott think we have any criteria or priorities for what Biomedical science gets funded in India. We leave the thinking-up of good ideas to scientists.

Could you describe the Our Planet, Our Health initiative from the Wellcome Trust and its significance?

The Trust has always been looking for opportunties to invest in new areas of research. So, the Trust fell on the chance to be a bigger investor in the link between basic science, health, environment and contemporary challenges like the health challenges of people living in big crowded urban cities and the health challenges in obesity. So, the 'Our Planet, Our Health' initiative is designed to bring all of these links together.

The Wellcome Trust has initiated several programs under the new funding framework, focused on international collaboration, seed funding etc. Can you describe the goal of these programs?

One of our newest initiatives is the Collaboration Award. One of the things we keep hearing from the community is that "science works best when it is in teams; but you give nearly all of your awards to individuals!" So, the Collaboration Award is actually a scheme to fund teams of collaborators.The point of the seed funding is to help researchers who actually have not yet got quite enough data to win what you could call a 'big award'. This award is a small one to help them develop a proof of concept or to generate data. It's a deliberately small award. The Wellcome Trust has a significant portfolio of funding major international programs. Could you share your experiences in working on some of them? How would you measure the success of such projects?

Well, I could speak about our experiences in Africa over the last 5 years, where we funded an initiative to improve institutions and fund research, though the emphasis there was on improving institutions. We have learnt that unless you have a huge amount of money, you should not try to change or improve institutions, especially if you are thousands of miles away. So the huge lesson for us is that for the next 5 years, we need to focus on training people.

Over the next 5 years, we are planning to spend about 100 million dollars on a new programme we are rolling out in sub-Saharan Africa. The purpose of this programme is to develop the next generation of  African researchers. One way of measuring our achievement, which is probably the single most important factor of success in the long term is that the scientists who emerge in the future will be able to independently win competitive funding. That is what we think the measure will be for success.

Are there any plans to create new programs in other countries in the rest of the world or in another Asian country?

We do have a program in Africa right now, but it is a very different model to the one in India since it is funded through consortia and not as directly funded fellowships. We are starting to plan for a program in South-East Asia, which is going to be a mix of funding through consortia and direct fellowships.

What are your expectations from the Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance researchers?

My expectations for the future from the people we are funding would actually be three things:

1.    That they themselves should go on to win and continue to win competitive funding, so that the quality of their science is internationally benchmarked.
2.    We also want to see these scientists contributing to leading the Indian Biomedical ecosystem. They themselves should be models and mentors. They should be brave to try and challenge things that should be changed. That they should look at what can be done, and not what cannot be done.
3.    We also want to see more collaboration between our international programs - principally between Africa, South-East Asia and India. I would like to see the India Alliance researchers as part of a vibrant community of collaborators across the globe.

About Dr Simon Kay:

Dr Simon Kay received a doctorate in Tumour Immunology from the University of Nottingham, after which he joined the British Council. During a career that spanned 26 years, he has worked in Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan and Israel to build bilateral relations between the UK and these countries through education, science and the arts. He joined the Wellcome Trust in Spetember 2012, and currently leads the Trust's capacity building initiatives in lower and middle income countries, including the India Alliance. Dr Kay is presently also responsible for the roll-out of the new DELTAS programme in sub-Saharan Africa and the establishment of the Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) platform in partnership with the African Academy of Sciences, Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development (DFID).

About the Wellcome Trust:

The Wellcome Trust is one of the world's largest independent charities that supports research aimed at improving health. Founded to further the legacy of the British pharmaceutical magnate, Sir Henry Wellcome, the Wellcome Trust manages a vast range of funding programs spanning basic research, capacity building, public engagement and the application of research to improve health, both in the UK and elsewhere. The Wellcome Trust also supports several major overseas programmes including the WT-DBT India Alliance, the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme and the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme in Africa and the Wellcome Trust Mahidol University Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme in Thailand and Laos and the Vietnam Research Program and Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam.A brief video on the history of the Wellcome Trust can be accessed here.

About the Wellcome Trust-DBT India Alliance:

In 2008, the Wellcome Trust began a collaboration with the Indian Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to launch the Wellcome Trust-DBT (WT-DBT) India Alliance. This £160 million, equal-partnership initiative between the two organizations was a landmark event for the Indian scientific community. The fellowships awarded under this scheme span themes from fundamental biology to public health and the broad aim of the India Alliance is to build excellence in the Indian biomedical scientific community by supporting future leaders in the field.