Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bill Gates on some grant money lessons learned

Innovation moves faster in the technology sector than in many other areas of science, such as medicine or biology. Five years ago, Bill Gates gave millions of dollars to some ideas for advancements in vaccinations, and modified foods, thinking those ideas would become reality by now. Most of those ideas are still in the planning stages, giving Bill Gates a big lesson in how his foundation operates as it tries to solve social ills.

From the New York Times, reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. writes about the lessons learned and how the foundation plans on changing strategy.

In an interview, Mr. Gates sounded somewhat chastened, saying several times, “We were naïve when we began.”

As an example, he cited the pursuit of vaccines that do not need refrigeration. “Back then, I thought: ‘Wow — we’ll have a bunch of thermostable vaccines by 2010.’ But we’re not even close to that. I’d be surprised if we have even one by 2015.”

He underestimated, he said, how long it takes to get a new product from the lab to clinical trials to low-cost manufacturing to acceptance in third-world countries.

In 2007, instead of making more multimillion-dollar grants, he started making hundreds of $100,000 ones.

“Now,” he said, only half-kidding, “you get a hundred grand if you even pretend you can cure AIDS.”

That little won’t buy a breakthrough, but it lets scientists “moonlight” by adding new goals to their existing grants, which saves the foundation a lot of winnowing. “And,” he added, “a scientist in a developing country can do a lot with $100,000.”

Over all, he said: “On drawing attention to ways that lives might be saved through scientific advances, I’d give us an A.

“But I thought some would be saving lives by now, and it’ll be more like in 10 years from now.”

Several scientists at the conference noted that Mr. Gates comes from the software industry, where computing power constantly doubles. Biology, by comparison, moves glacially — and microbes are less cooperative than electrons.

Biology also has a greater tendency to create progress-hindering controversy. For example, doing clinical trials on illiterate subjects in poor countries, which was once cheap and fast but ethically dubious, has become time-consuming and expensive as ethical standards have improved.

Also, poor countries lacking regulatory authorities and highly educated political and scientific elites may be nervous about being misused by Western scientists and careful about accepting new technologies.

Despite discoveries on many fronts, up to two-thirds of the grants either did not get renewed or may not in the near future, Mr. Gates estimated. In some cases, it was because they were not succeeding, either scientifically or because of political obstacles, or someone else had found a better path. In others, the foundation changed the goal.


Don Stoll said...

The fact that "up to two-thirds of the [Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's] grants either did not get renewed or may not in the near future" suggests that Gates swings too hard for the fences and might want to consider bunting now and then. A foundation for which a $100,000 grant is practically an afterthought necessarily overlooks the possibility of helping small local NGOs and businesses. Few of these would ever dare to "pretend" to "cure AIDS." But, with far greater odds of success than Gates' moonlighting scientists, such NGOs and businesses could achieve much more with his money on behalf of poor people than the scientists do when they strike out.

Government Grants said...

Bill gates will surely do something better for the people as they will leave some grants for the people that can easily be used by the poor people or the people leaving below the poverty line.