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1/2 idea No. 35: Wellcome science policy review

By Jon Agar, on 3 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The historical analysis of UK science policy is very patchy. Some organisations active in funding or shaping science are well studied (for example, we have quite a few papers on aspects of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research), but others, for various reasons, are more obscure, at least from the perspective of independent, primary-source-evidence-led investigation.

There are several causes of obscurity.

One is commercial secrecy. For much of the twentieth-century, most UK science was publicly-funded, even if much of the research was conducted by industry. Since the end of the Cold War, the predominant proportion of UK science has both been funded and conducted within the private sector. Yet science policy analysis still focusses mostly on government (mine included). According to most recent ONS figures (2019), £38.5 billion is expended on R&D in the UK, of which 2/3rds (£25.9b) is in the business sector.

According to the EU 2020 R&D Scoreboard, the list of UK companies that spent more than £300 million on R&D were:


GLAXOSMITHKLINE Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology 5068.0
ASTRAZENECA Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology 4795.3
HSBC Banks 1856.9
ROLLS-ROYCE Aerospace & Defence 1305.8
APTIV Automobiles & Parts 1037.0
BARCLAYS Banks 1001.0
ROYAL DUTCH SHELL Oil & Gas Producers 856.3
UNILEVER Food Producers 840.0
BT Fixed Line Telecommunications 629.6
ATLASSIAN CORPORATION Software & Computer Services 515.5
MICRO FOCUS INTERNATIONAL Software & Computer Services 452.4
NATWEST Banks 443.8
RELX GROUP Media 388.9
MELROSE INDUSTRIES Industrial Engineering 386.6
DELPHI TECHNOLOGIES Automobiles & Parts 363.2
BP Oil & Gas Producers 324.0
BAT Tobacco 320.0
DYSON JAMES Household Goods & Home Construction 309.5
EXPERIAN Support Services 304.4
RECKITT BENCKISER Household Goods & Home Construction 300.2

We can see the predominance of pharmaceuticals, and we all now know something about what Astrazeneca does. But what I find striking about this list is how little we know, in reliable detail, about much of this private science. The Atlassian Corporation’s R&D spend (£515.5m) is comparable to Cambridge University’s research income for 2018 (£524.9m), yet I think it is fair to say the latter is better known than the former.

The list of top R&D-spending companies in the UK changes over time, partly due to the changing fortunes of business, partly due to how and what is counted as research and development. A similar table from the R&D Scoreboard of 2007 has some of the same names (Astrazeneca, BT, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell, HSBC, BP, etc) but also different ones (Smiths General, Vodafone, Shire, Reuters). Historians of recent UK science have not addressed these patterns of continuity and change of private science.

But there are also reasons other than commercial discretion that have discouraged detailed analysis of bodies important for UK science.

Which brings me to the Wellcome.

The Wellcome Trust is a private foundation that funds (broadly speaking) biomedical and health research. The overall funding from private foundations is, objectively, relatively small (private non-profit bodies funded just 4% of UK R&D in 2019), but it has considerable strategic significance. Partly this significance is due to the speed and nimbleness that private foundations can act in response to changing challenges, albeit as constrained within charitable aims. Private foundations, by leading, can make publicly-funded science policy follow. This leadership effect is one reason why the accountability of publicly-funded science is not complete without an analysis of privately-funded science.

Within the UK landscape of science funding, the Wellcome is the most significant. It spends more, it has a higher profile, and it is an essential partner and patron for many research institutes and university centres in (as well as beyond) the UK. While it has its origins in the foundation set up after the death of Henry Wellcome in 1936, its contemporary influence rests on decisions taken in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1986, the Wellcome company was floated on the stock market, the foundation sold its shared, and a large diversified charitable fund was created. When the Wellcome company subsequently merged with Glaxo in 1992, more shares were sold, raising a further £2.3 billion. The Wellcome Trust’s investment fund now stands at £29.1 billion, and the revenue funds considerable amounts of science.

But what science?

The key decision-makers in philanthropic foundations are trustees. Trustees, by charity law, are bounded by the charitable aims, but within these bounds there is considerable flexibility. Trustees – and their interests, commitments, values, experience, background, and worldviews – should therefore be the focus of analysis to understand the science and science policy consequences of philanthropic foundations. In history of science we have an excellent worked example of such an analysis: Lily Kay’s The Molecular Vision of Life (1992), a terrific study of the consequences of the interests of the trustees on the science funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the mid-twentieth century.

The proposal, therefore, is for an analysis of the Wellcome Trust along the model of Kay’s analysis of the Rockefeller Foundation.

One might wonder why such studies do not already exist, given the importance of science to solving the world’s problems, and the strategic significance of the Wellcome? We can (largely) discount commercial secrecy, since the Wellcome is a non-profit body. Of course as a private body it is not obliged to be accountable in the same way as publicly-funded bodies are (to Parliament, to public audit, and, ultimately, to historians via scrutiny of public records). Nor is it accountable to share-holders, as some companies are. Private means private. But, as argued above, the leadership effect should prompt us to inquire about how decision are taken when they have broader, including public, influence. Even press scrutiny is rare, although Natasha Loder’s article in Nature from 2000 comes close.

I suspect the absence of analysis comes from two sources, one stemming from academic self-interest (why jeopardise future research applications?), and one that comes from a general feeling that the Wellcome is a force for good, which I have no reason to doubt is the case. Who, after all, would not cheer on the people who support ‘science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone‘? Who doesn’t want to see mental health, infectious disease and climate change tackled?

But, there is too much at stake to assume the best of the best. I think science is too important for us not ask for as full-as-possible, open, independent, evidence-driven accounts of how the decisions that have shaped it have been taken. This argument applies to understanding how decisions are taken not only in government, but also in private bodies, including companies and foundations.

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