Annual Report

2017 Annual Report

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).

In 2008, we developed an institutional program to increase interaction and the level of understanding between population scientists and bench scientists. Ten funded institutions have successfully participated in this career-training program.
This year we again surveyed biomedical science and determined that a vast reservoir of potential researchers was being left behind—individuals with MD’s only. Fewer than 1.5 percent of the nation’s MD’s are doing research, yet they often have the best insight and understanding of problems to tackle and the research needed to do just that. Three decades ago, the former director of the National Institutes of Health called the physician-scientist an endangered species, and the number of these uniquely-trained researchers has only fallen since then.

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