Annual Report

Each year I highlight the successes of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, mentioning the great early career scientists we support in training and research, the educational opportunities we provide for the young people of in North Carolina, and the institutional and scientific policies we have advanced by supporting key initiatives in underfunded areas of science.

I am confident of the importance of what we, as a private foundation, do and will continue to do. The challenge that many foundations face is to prove our positive outcomes in a scientific and statistically valid fashion. At the Fund we have thus begun a careful examination of the outcomes of our grant funding programs to see if we are fulfilling our mission to advance biomedical research and education.

In developing such proof, we need a control group against which to measure the successes/failures of our awardees. Finding such as control has never been easy, but we now have several possibil- ities. Our initial results are based on publications and their impacts, grants, promotions, and awards and we find that we are funding individuals who outperform the controls. While we have done a careful examination for a few of our programs, much work remains to determine the success of our investments. We also continue to look at what we should consider success, what should we measure as outcomes? How are we defining success? What does success look like? I am certain that as we refine these criteria, we will strengthen the validity of our controls.

In measuring our impact in STEM education at the K-12 levels, it is even more difficult to determine success. Not only do we not have controls, we do not have the long-term longitudinal data on the program participants, most of whom we only have contact with during the actual program activity. We have, though, measured changes in attitudes toward science as well as improved science understanding by the young people in the program in pre- and post- programmatic surveys. Here we see greatly increased enthusiasm from the beginning to the end of the program, as well as a greater understanding of STEM material. We will continue to refine our measures, but because of the short-term contact with most of these young people we may never be able to show that the programs have a long-term impact on career choices or appreciation of science. I am content to know that we may have planted a seed for a love of STEM regardless of career choice.

Last year I introduced you to a new institutional program designed to increase the number of MD-only physician-scientists. We made our first five awards and are pleased with the excitement and activity that was generated around the award, so much so that we are running a second award cycle to make five more $2.5 million awards. The long-term outcome of this program—more physician-scientists—is straightforward, but that outcome is still many years in the future. We need to assess short-term outcomes to determine whether the grants are making a difference and if adjustments are needed. Here measurements have been built into the programs that range from number of individuals in the program to research residencies and fellowships to participant feedback to provide an interim idea of how the programs are proceeding and the short-term outcomes.

Although private foundations and voluntary health organizations provide less than 10% of funding for biomedical research, the recent government shutdown highlighted again the importance of the relative stability of our unding. It also demonstrated how the flexible risk capital of the Fund provides the opportunity for our scientists to try exciting and innovative research, free from the politics that can surround Federal funding.

Although the comments of our awardees are difficult to quantify, the almost universal appreciation and testimonials from them that our funding and support and networking opportunities have made, and are continuing to make, a difference in their careers clearly demonstrates to me that even when we don’t have the perfect control or know precisely how to measure an outcome, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is on the right track in fulfilling its mission of advancing biomedical research and education.

John E. Burris, Ph.D.
Burroughs Wellcome Fund