Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Changes in how the Gates Foundation donates to global health

Over the years the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has changed the principals that decide their giving. The foundation is interested in actions that provide immediate results, which is why it is now focused on vaccines and improving health.

When the Gates Foundation started, it gave money to explore innovative projects such as lab in a card, or mosquitoes with artificial noses. Now that the foundation has changed its strategy, it has left some scientists in a funding vacuum, looking for money elsewhere to continue their ambitious projects.

From the Seattle Times, writer Sandi Doughton explains the change in strategy and how it has hurt some scientists.

Nearly $460 million later, the foundation isn't exactly pulling the plug on the original Grand Challenges in Global Health program. But recession and a sense of urgency have drained much of Gates' enthusiasm for large, speculative research endeavors.

Most of the projects have used up their money and aren't receiving any more. Many with continued funding are receiving far less than before.

Some disappointed scientists say the loss of funding will slow progress on research that has lifesaving potential — but needs more time to mature.

"It's left most of us a bit frustrated about the whole thing," said Brett Finlay, a molecular biologist from the University of British Columbia. With the $8.7 million his team received to develop medicines that boost the body's general defenses against disease, the researchers discovered a potential drug for a severe form of malaria. "Now we're looking at each other, asking: 'How are we going to take this forward?' "

Foundation officials say the program was an experiment that's simply running its intended course. Most grants were for five years. There was never a guarantee of more funding, although many scientists assumed promising projects would be continued.

At the program's final conference in Seattle last week, Gates Foundation global health Director Dr. Tachi Yamada made it clear the megaphilanthropy approach is sharpening its focus on technologies with the biggest health payoffs and near-term applications.

"We've changed the way we work," he said. "In the very earliest days, honestly I don't know if we knew what we were doing. We were giving away money as fast as we could. ... Now we're trying to be more strategic."

Grand Challenges has always represented a small proportion of the Gates Foundation's spending, which now exceeds $2 billion a year. Much of that money goes to support the Global Fund, which distributes AIDS medications and fights malaria and tuberculosis, and GAVI, which provides childhood vaccines. The foundation also funds tightly focused efforts to develop and test vaccines and drugs for malaria, TB and other diseases.

In fact, vaccines are now the foundation's top priority, Yamada said. And it's not enough to develop something new. It must get to the people who need it — the sooner the better.

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