Well, since last week around here we were talking about how (and how not to) fund research, I should mention that Bill Gates is currently having some of the same discussions. He’s doing it with real money, though, and plenty of it.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation definitely has that – the question has been how best to spend it. They started out by handing out money to the top academic research organizations in the field, just to prime the pump. Then a few years ago, the focus turned to a set of “Grand Challenges”, fourteen of the biggest public health problems, and the foundation began distributing grant money to fight them. But according to this article, from a fellow who’s writing a book on the topic, Gates hasn’t necessarily been pleased with the results so far:
”. . .Gates expected breakthroughs as he handed out 43 such grants in 2005. He had practically engineered a new stage in the evolution of scientific progress, assembling the best minds in science, equipped with technology of unprecedented power, and working toward starkly-defined objectives on a schedule.
But the breakthroughs are stubbornly failing to appear. More recently, a worried Gates has hedged his bets, not only against his own Grand Challenge projects but against how science has been conducted in health research for much of the last century.”
My first impulse on hearing this news is not, unfortunately, an honorable one. To illustrate: I remember a research program I worked on at the Wonder Drug Factory, one that started with a series of odd little five-membered-ring molecules. Everyone who looked them over had lots of ideas about what should be done with them, and lots of ideas about how to make them. The problem was, the latter set of ideas almost invariably failed to work.
This was a terribly frustrating situation for the chemists on the project, because we kept presenting our progress to various roomfuls of people, and the same questions kept coming up, albeit in increasingly irritated tones. “Why don’t you just. . .” We tried that. “Well, it seems like you could just. . .” It seemed like that to us, too, six months ago. “Haven’t you been able to. . .” No, that doesn’t work, either. I know it looks like it should. But it doesn’t. Progress was slow, and new people kept joining the effort to try to get things moving. They’d come in, rolling up their sleeves and heading for the fume hood, muttering “Geez, do I have to do everything myself?”, and a few weeks later you’d find them frowning at ugly NMR spectra next to flasks of brown gunk, shaking their heads and talking to themselves.
I’d gone through the same stage myself, earlier, so my feelings about the troubles of the later entrants to our wonderful project devolved to schadenfreude which, as mentioned, is not the most honorable of emotions. I have to resist the same tendency when reading about the Gates Foundation – sitting back and saying “Hah! Told you this stuff was hard! Didn’t believe it, did you?” isn’t much help to anyone, satisfying though it might be on one level. I’m cutting Bill Gates more slack than I did Andy Grove of Intel, though, since Gates seems to have taken a longer look at the medical research field before deciding that there’s something wrong with it. I note, though, that we now have well-financed representatives of both the hardware and software industries wondering why their well-honed techniques don’t seem to produce breakthroughs when applied to health care.
Now the Gates people are trying a new tactic. The “Explorations” program, announced a few months ago, is deliberately trying to fund people outside the main track of research in its main areas of focus (infectious disease) in an effort to bring in some new thinking. I’ll let Tadataka Yamata of the Gates Foundation sum it up, from the NEJM earlier this year:
”New ideas should not have to battle so hard for oxygen. Unfortunately, they must often do so. Even if we recognize the need to embrace new thinking — because one never knows when a totally radical idea can help us tackle a problem from a completely different angle — it takes humility to let go of old concepts and familiar methods. We have seemed to lack such humility in the field of global health, where the projects related to diseases, such as HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, that get the most funding tend to reflect consensus views, avoid controversy, and have a high probability of success, if "success" is defined as the production of a meaningful but limited increase in knowledge. As a result, we gamble that a relatively small number of ideas will solve the world's greatest global health challenges. That's not a bet we can afford to continue making for much longer.”
What’s interesting about this is that the old-fashioned funding that Yamata is talking about is well exemplified by the previous Gates Foundation grants. After last week’s discussion here about “deliverables” in grant awards, it’s interesting to look back at the reaction to the 2003-2005 round of “Grand Challenges” funding:
”Researchers applying for grants had to spell out specific milestones, and they will not receive full funding unless they meet them. "We had lots of pushback from the scientific community, saying you can't have milestones," says Klausner. "We kept saying try it, try it, try it." Applicants also had to develop a "global access plan" that explained how poor countries could afford whatever they developed.
Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who won a $13.9 million award to engineer adult stem cells that produce HIV antibodies not found naturally, was one of the scientists who pushed back. "At first, I thought it was overly bureaucratic and unnecessary," said Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "But as a discipline, to make sure we knew what we were talking about, it turned out to be interesting. In no other grant do you so precisely lay out what you expect to happen."
I have to think, then, that in no other grant are the chances of any breakthrough result so slim. It would be interesting to know what the Gates people think, behind closed doors, of the return they’ve gotten on the first round of grant money, but perhaps the advent of the Explorations program is already comment enough. (One round of Explorations funding has already taken place, but a second round is coming up this fall. You can start your application process here).
The next question is, naturally, how well the Explorations program might work – but that’s a big enough topic for a post of its own. . .