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Promoting Science on Behalf of the Most Vulnerable

  • Chris Wilson, Mar 22, 2016

Bill Gates is known for blasting the anti-baldness industry. His objection has nothing to do with baldness per se, but rather with the priorities of the scientific research community. Why, he wants to know, do we spend more on lifestyle conveniences like growing hair on heads that naturally resist it than on matters of life-and-death like preventing malaria?

One reason the Gates Foundation exists is to rebalance these priorities - to make sure that more money flows toward solving the urgent problems that keep billions of people from leading healthy and productive lives. Science is a powerful tool, and if the world wields it in the right way, we believe the human conditions will improve to an extent we've never seen before.

But that still leaves a question: What is the best way to encourage scientists to address the most difficult challenges poor people face? For the 15 years since the Gates Foundation was founded, we have usually tried to identify the challenges first - say, the lack of an effective diagnostic test for tuberculosis - and then tried to get scientists to work on them.

However, ours is not the only model for funding science. Some of the leaders in the field, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Wellcome Trust, start by identifying the most ambitious and talented scientists, on the theory that whatever work they do will benefit humanity in ways no one could have foreseen.

Today, the Gates Foundation is joining an exciting partnership with HHMI, Wellcome Trust, and the Portuguese Gulbenkian Foundation that will help dozens of scientific researchers around the world pursue whichever subjects capture their imagination. This amounts to an experiment for us. What happens when we support researchers whose general area of research aligns with our interests as a way to promote science on behalf of the poorest?

The International Research Scholars Program support early-mid-career scientists - from non-G7 countries - whose work shows the potential to lead to global-health breakthroughs. We decided to focus on early-mid career scientists because they have already demonstrated their ability and yet are only now entering the most creative phase of their careers. We decided to focus on non-G7 scientists because they have less access to funding in general, and because they are likely to have more first-hand experience with the sorts of problems the Gates Foundation is interested in solving.

The Research Scholars we support will not necessarily be global health scientists, but their work will be relevant to the key questions guiding the field. And once they are selected to receive an award, we will have no formal say over how their work progresses, though we will follow it with great interest.

In addition to financial support, we will also be providing intellectual support that we believe will help the recipients engage with the scientific challenges of developing countries. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is merely to put the research scholars in touch with each other, since the community they create will be uniquely diverse.

Moreover, we will help them become active parts of the scientific communities formed by other Gates Foundation grantees dedicated to science for the benefit of the poorest. For example, through a program that called Grand Challenges we fund along with many partners around the world, we bring hundreds of scientists to an annual Grand Challenges meeting that is among the biggest and most diverse global health gatherings in the world. We are excited to see what the Grand Challenges grantees can learn from the Research Scholars, and vice versa.

We won't have a definitive answer about how this experiment works out for many years. And that's okay. It will take time to see how this support influences the scientists' entire lives' work. There is a very slight possibility that a Research Scholar will find the cure for baldness. We are confident, though, that at the very least we will help very smart people do novel and exciting scientific work. Hopefully, some of the research scholars will generate breakthrough insights that change the way global health is done.

No matter what, the Gates Foundation will learn lessons that help us refine our approach to combining research and global development so that more people are empowered to improve their lives with the best that science has to offer.

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