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ISSF: Innovative funding to help universities develop themselves

19 Aug, 2015

ISSF grantsThe Wellcome Trust has many different grant schemes on offer, from small arts awards to multi-million pound funding for Centres of research excellence. The Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) is a £38m funding scheme over two years to support biomedical research (and related activities), with a bit of a twist – it’s up to the universities who are granted the money to decide how best to spend it. Roger Blake, External Liaison Manager at the Wellcome Trust, explains the benefits of this distinctive scheme…

The usual grant-giving process relies on people or organisations coming to us with their pre-defined ideas for projects and research, and this process works well. However there are some occasions where it is hard for us, as a funding body, to fully understand the individual challenges that universities are faced with and what ‘on the ground’ priorities need to be addressed.

This is where ISSF funding comes in. Funded universities are encouraged to invest strategically in areas of unmet need such as early career support, seed funding and proof of concept studies, public engagement, and collaborative and interdisciplinary initiatives – areas where there may be existing goodwill and ideas, but limited financial investment.

Furthermore, we like ISSF funds to establish institutional structures and strategies that can sustain and facilitate these activities in the long-term.

The awards – of between £600,000 and £3 million over a two year period – are available to UK universities, who are asked to match the allocation with their own funds. This gives an indication that the institutions receiving the money are serious about making investments in these areas and ideas that could benefit generations to come.

The key advantage of this funding is the flexibility and freedom it gives universities to determine how best to use the funds to suit their unique circumstances. This recognises that a “one-size fits all” top-down approach is not always the most effective, and has led to a range of different approaches being developed, a few of which are outlined below.

JF Pink V2

Enhancing interdisciplinary collaboration

The University of Exeter is taking a large-scale, centralised approach to nurturing collaboration between different fields, using ISSF funding to establish and run a Biomedical Informatics Hub within its Wellcome Trust Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis.

The Hub hosts regular exchange meetings to spark ideas for integrated research and foster new collaborations across biomedical, clinical and quantitative sciences.

Smaller-scale approaches can also help foster collaborative thinking, as the University of Leeds is demonstrating with its innovative discipline-hopping programme. This uses some of the ISSF award to provide grants that allow researchers to briefly dip into other fields to gain new insights and perspectives.

Supporting early-career researchers

The Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool has introduced a five-year tenure-track fellowship scheme to give early-stage researchers a new career route, with better-protected research time than traditional lectureships. This enables fellows to focus on their research so they are better equipped to compete for external funding at a later date. The posts are funded 50/50 by the faculty and the ISSF, and the success of the scheme means it has been rolled out across the faculty to replace lectureships, and is even being adopted by other universities.

The University of Bristol is using ISSF support to run innovative Clinical Primer Schemes for recently qualified medical doctors and veterinary graduates. These give early-career clinicians the chance to work in a research environment for the first time. Successful candidates undertake a six-month interdisciplinary research project co-supervised by clinical and non-clinical staff at the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research. Of the 21 medical Primers funded since 2011, five have secured research training fellowships and three have academic clinical fellowships.

Rebecca Pearson, Bristol University Blue

Like many other universities, Bristol also uses the ISSF to support Early Career Fellowships, helping talented researchers to develop their own research careers in the biomedical sciences, medical humanities and social sciences. Fellows receive funding and mentoring support to enable them to apply to external funding bodies for their own research grants.

Promoting diversity in research staff, the College of Life Sciences and Medicine at the University of Aberdeen is using ISSF support to launch a Supporting Women Returners programme aimed at female academic staff returning from maternity leave or a career break. The programme enables them to apply for three to six months of protected research time so they are in a better position to apply for research grant or fellowship funding, or to publish findings to support their career development.

Public Engagement

The Trust has a range of different support for public engagement activities, and the ISSF can be used to help universities take a more strategic approach to public engagement.

Simon Chaplin Green

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has used ISSF support to appoint a public engagement co-ordinator and establish an advisory committee to help guide their activities. The co-ordinator was instrumental in developing and implementing LSHTM’s new public engagement strategy, which supports researchers incorporating public engagement into their work and provides staff training and individual advice on how to engage with the public and funders.

At a more advanced stage of its public engagement journey, the University of Manchester is using ISSF funding to enhance its already well-established public engagement strategy, having had a co-ordinator leading Public Programmes since 2009. A Public Engagement Advisory Group has been set up to improve decision-making on which projects to fund, liaising directly with the University’s Strategic Operations Group. ISSF funding is being used to develop a more rigorous approach to evaluating public engagement activities – all projects now have to have a built-in evaluation strategy.

Space to innovate

The ISSF gives universities the chance to identify and quickly address priorities and challenges in a way that best fits their current institutional needs. We encourage them to share their progress and ideas so that other universities may benefit from the lessons they have learned about what works.

Having spent time listening to universities across the UK we know that the ISSF is one of our most valued schemes and we look forward to more exciting things to come from it.

You can find out more about the Wellcome Trust’s ISSF funding in this previous blog post. Details of the scheme and a list of the 25 universities who currently receive ISSF grants can be found on our website

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