Risk-taking in research

John Williams

BHP Managing Director Dr John Williams spoke to Mark Brown for Beyond the Room shortly after delivering a presentation on health research funding, at the 50th Anniversary event for the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry.

JW: Before I took on the role of Managing Director at BHP, I spent the best part of 20 years working for the Wellcome Trust, where one of the portfolios I have the privilege of managing was the new science in mental health sector. That’s partly why it was such a pleasure to come to this 50th anniversary celebration, and share some thoughts on how we need to go about funding the next generation of researchers.

We need to think about how we find and support youth with the same confidence as we supported leading names in mental health research around 30 years ago.

MB: Part of your introduction today talked about there being so many opportunities for funding mental health research, but this seems to be happening at the same time as others saying there are far less opportunities. Is there an unclear picture, or is it more about who’s getting funding and for what?

JW: It’s important to emphasise that I’m currently outside the sector and outside of policy making, but there is without doubt renewed interest from funders, policymakers and politicians in the mental health space. Global philanthropy has invested millions, if not billions actually, in contemporary science and mental health too.

So, there is no question that there is funding out there – but what’s become more challenging is understanding how to access it, and how we move beyond what I would call a ‘faddy’ approach to research. We need to identify where we need to deliver funding, to potentially achieve the most impact for patients – because it’s the patient we need to be most concerned with. That’s the challenge – not ‘is the pot big enough?’, because funding always has been and always will be competitive. It’s about where and how we target funding appropriately.

MB: You also talked about getting behind ‘slow science’, but then we also have the interesting question of the 20-year implementation gap in mental health research. I can see how that might lead to ‘faddy’ funding of things. How do we ‘square the circle’ of wanting quick wins, and also wanting to lay the fertiliser on the soil so something great grows in the future?

JW: I think there is an inherent tension there. When I say ‘slow science’, I think about a food analogy – you want to be able to absorb the nutrients. It’s about really getting the science right, rather than getting the headline – building that robust evidence base that allows the NHS and others to be confident that the evidence works and will scale. When they have that confidence, they can invest and shape the evidence into service provision.

Slow science is very much about understanding quality – what it is, how do we achieve it, and then how do we make it available to the patient at scale.

MB: The final thing I want to ask about – you talked about spotting people early in their careers with big ideas, and how the almost mechanical process of working out what’s worth funding can also recognise what’s visionary. Is this a difficult job?

JW: It’s almost impossible. There’s a saying that “hindsight is wonderful when you’ve picked a winner” and I think it’s about listening with an open mind and being willing to challenge inherent biases that we all have, conscious and unconscious. Recognising that, if you’re in the privileged position to be philanthropically funded, not only can you sometimes take bets, but that it’s also ok to lose. It’s that willingness to take risks – almost to be instinctive in how you respond – that I think we perhaps have lost.

Link: listen to John’s chat with Mark.