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  • Wellcome Trust’s new head brings tropical perspective

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Speed read

  • Jeremy Farrar spent the past 17 years running a Vietnamese research unit

  • He says his Asian experience will inform his work at the UK’s Wellcome Trust

  • His leadership may benefit developing world scientists, says former colleague

[HANOI] As the new director of UK research charity the Wellcome Trust takes up his post, hopes have been raised that his experience of science in south-east Asia may advance the trust’s activities in developing nations.
 
Jeremy Farrar took up his position as head of the trust, one of the world’s largest funders of biomedical research, on 1 October. He has spent the past 17 years as director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU) in Vietnam.
 
“The chance to lead an organisation such as the Wellcome Trust is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think the time is right for a change and a new challenge,” Farrar tells SciDev.Net.
 
Farrar is recognised as a leading figure in tropical medicine research. In Vietnam, he studied diseases such as dengue fever, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and bird flu.

He also advised the WHO, for example on vaccines for dengue and similar viruses.
 

“The chance to lead an organisation such as the Wellcome Trust is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think the time is right for a change and a new challenge.”

Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust

In a comment piece, published last year in Nature, Farrar said he thought investment in genomics, technology and training in the developing world was the best way to curb the spread of bird flu. He said this would make the public health and clinical research response in developing countries “faster and more flexible in dealing with rapid developments”.
 
There has been press speculation that Farrar’s experience in the developing world could lead to the trust strengthening its focus on capacity building in this part of the world. For example, earlier this year a Nature news article reported that David Heymann, chairman of the advisory board for UK government agency Public Health England, thinks Farrar is likely to encourage the trust’s recent increased spending on overseas research.
 
But Farrar tells SciDev.Net that it is too early to comment on such matters. “First, I need to listen to people,” he says. “I see this as an evolutionary process and hope to be in post for many years. There is time to listen, stand back and take a long-term view.”
 
He adds that the Wellcome Trust and other research funders in the United Kingdom have already worked closely with governments around the world, despite tough economic times.
 
Yet one of Farrar’s former colleagues from Vietnam thinks his appointment will benefit developing countries, especially in Asia.
 
Hoa Ngo, who heads a research group at OUCRU studying diseases that are transmitted between animals and humans, says: “At first we thought: ‘How will manage without him?’, but soon afterwards came the thought: ‘How will it be for us with Jeremy now the director of the Wellcome Trust?’.”
 
Hoa thinks that research units in the developing world will be able to work even more effectively with the Wellcome Trust, now it has Farrar at the helm. “Surely Farrar’s great experience in Vietnam will give him a good understanding of the challenges facing scientists working on or implementing projects in developing countries.”
 
Farrar adds that his time in Asia will inform his day-to-day work. “Asia has taught me many things, which I hope I will bring to my new role,” he says. “I have enormous respect for the way in which people from Asia approach their work and their colleagues, and I hope I will take a little bit of that back with me.”
 
Link to the Nature news article 
Link to the Nature comment article
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