A Look at How the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Backs Biomedical Researchers


For nearly 80 years, Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) has supported biomedical research, providing financial and even nonfinancial help to researchers across the span of their careers, and pursuing other efforts to encourage STEM education and diversity in the sciences.

In more recent years, this has translated into growth in funding for early-career researchers who are navigating the difficult transitions into their first faculty positions. But while BWF is first and foremost a funder of biomedical science, it has also worked for decades to support the success of students and scientists from underrepresented groups and backgrounds, who have been subtly and not so subtly excluded from careers in research and science. I checked in recently with Lou Muglia, who joined the Burroughs Wellcome Fund as president and CEO in early 2020 to get an idea of the organization's latest philanthropic interests and directions.

"As an organization, we have specific programs meant to support those traditionally marginalized and affected by white privilege in the United States, people that have been the subject of transgenerational structural racism," Muglia said. "And we believe our commitment to giving them a more equitable platform to succeed is very important."

More recently, BWF has expanded its grantmaking in long-time focus areas, such as preterm birth. And in just the last year, it has begun making grants out of a new program to explore climate change and its impact on human health, awarding $1 million across 20 early-stage grants to stimulate connections between researchers in disparate fields. The aim there is to foster the collaborative study necessary to understand exactly how the climate is changing and how those changes are affecting human health and wellbeing.

About that name…

Before I continue, let's clear up any confusion about the origins of BWF and its connection to the similarly named Wellcome Trust, based in the U.K. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund was created in 1955 as a U.S.-based philanthropic arm of Wellcome Trust, the older and much larger charitable foundation established by the pharmaceutical businessman Henry Wellcome, who in 1880, cofounded Burroughs Wellcome & Company. Though Wellcome was American, he established his company in England; it later became part of the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. (Among other things, Burroughs Wellcome & Company was a pioneer in the then-novel medicine delivery system now known as a tablet: Previously, most medicines were sold as powders or liquids.)

In 1994, the Wellcome Trust gifted BWF $400 million to establish it as separate and independent from the Wellcome Trust and GlaxoSmithKline. BWF is based in Research Triangle, North Carolina.

Since that establishing gift, BWF's endowment has grown to about $800 million, with approximately $45 million going out in grants each year, Muglia said. Though that might sound like a lot of money, BWF is a modest-sized player in the world of science and medical funding next to, say, its colossally endowed parent organization (£37.8 billion). Strategic thinking is behind all of BWF’s grantmaking — aiming, as Muglia put it, "to identify areas of great potential and impact but relatively less funding, broadly." For example, BWF has long focused on support for early-career researchers and postdoctoral fellows as they transition into their first faculty positions — a fraught period when many newer scientists are at risk of losing momentum in their research, and potentially being forced to change their preferred fields or leave academia altogether.

Funding early-career scientists is a role many foundations have taken interest in — including Wellcome Trust — and it's an important one. BWF also provides funding specifically for a group you don't hear so much about: physician-researchers, who bring a unique perspective as a result of their clinical experience treating actual patients alongside conducting research. That can involve backing later-career researchers. "We're increasingly interested in funding those that identify their clinical research questions relatively later in their careers, because there are few funding opportunities for those folks," Muglia said. "They just need a little bit of extra time and support to get there."

Confronting the problem of preterm birth

Muglia himself was a career biomedical researcher who specialized in genetics, with a focus on the problem of preterm birth, an all-too-frequent complication that puts babies at higher risk for a range of health problems. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of preterm birth among industrialized nations, numbering over 380,000 in 2022. While Black and Native American mothers are three times more likely than white women to have preterm pregnancies — and while social determinants of health cannot be discounted — genetic and other biological factors are believed to play an important, yet poorly understood role. 

BWF has been awarding grants to study preterm birth for years. In 2009, it launched its Preterm Birth Initiative, which Muglia, then a full-time researcher at the University of Cincinnati, helped develop. In fact, Muglia's appointment as president and CEO of BWF was due in part to his background as leading researcher in preterm birth. It's a particularly difficult topic to study for a few reasons, he explained — researchers cannot do experiments on pregnant women, and unlike with many other health problems, animal models are of little value.

But in the last several years, Muglia said, advances in genetics, imaging and other tools are giving scientists an opportunity to make real progress on preterm birth — if they get the funding and the other networking and professional support they need. "We've really started to identify the pathways in women that we will be able to intervene at, so I'm extremely optimistic about this," he said. "But I think people have not paid enough attention to bringing all of those things together.” BWF has recently expanded its support in this area to include all types of adverse pregnancy outcomes, not just preterm birth. BWF’s Next Gen Pregnancy program funds studies in molecular biology, but also funds innovative work around social determinants and how they affect pregnancy outcomes.

It’s not just about the money

BWF’s website contains informational resources of which researchers can avail themselves, such as background about the amazingly complex and expensive regulatory environment around the drug development process that biomedical researchers need to wrap their heads around. In fact, BWF offers a grant award program in this area of “regulatory science” — up to $500,000 over five years. It's not sexy to anyone outside the clinical research area but it's a crucial hurdle for anyone doing drug and medical device development, and an important link in terms of accelerating the availability of therapeutics to the public.

Ultimately, says Muglia, BWF aims to build supportive connection between scientists. "One of the things that is most special about BWF is that it's about more than just getting the money," Muglia said. "We build community amongst our awardees, and we build mentorship with our with our program staff. And that has, I think, served the organization well in terms of BWF and it's really benefited the individuals that have gotten our awards."