Funding individual scientists and researchers is a large part of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s identity. Over the years, you have heard me talk about funding the future leaders in biomedical research and having them join the Burroughs Wellcome Fund family. Impact is a frequent topic of discussion in the foundation sector—how do we measure the effect of our support? Of particular interest to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is the question, “can funding an individual scientist move an entire field forward?”
We are confident that choosing and supporting high-potential researchers does move science forward. Through the years, we have watched Burroughs Wellcome Fund researchers become leaders in their field, receive prestigious awards, and help bridge the gap between science and the public. Although we do so less often, we also see the wisdom in funding initiatives at institutions that provide models of excellence for others to replicate in helping a field advance.
Two decades ago, the Fund began exploring the intersection of quantitative science and biological science. The Fund invested in 10 interdisciplinary training programs based at U.S. academic institutions, offering three rounds of awards between 1996 and 2000, called Institutional Awards at the Scientific Interface. Once these centers were established, the Fund shifted its ongoing investment to individual awards targeted at the postdoc-to- faculty transition, Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI).
To try to reverse the continuing decline in physician- scientists, we have established an institutional award of $2.5 million for medical schools to engage and prepare MD’s for a research career. We do not know yet whether our program will help reverse this trend. We are, however, excited by the large number of applicants this year (more than 90), and the many novel ideas they have proposed.
In the years ahead we will continue to focus our funding on individual researchers, but must be willing to take advantage of opportune moments to fund institutional programs. All funding contains an element of risk, and we appreciate that as a foundation we have the luxury of taking chances, for only then can we hope to help push biomedical research and education forward.
John E. Burris, Ph.D.
Burroughs Wellcome Fund