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Bill Gates: Collecting the next round of wacky ideas

Mad Scientist

Mad Scientist

Why does the Gates Foundation keep funding all those wacky ideas like trying to use infrared light to confuse mosquitoes or manipulating bacterial spores into serving as vaccine delivery modules?

Because they think sometimes it works best to turn the routine scientific review process on its head.

“Science grant applications are usually approved by consensus review,” notes Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery for the Seattle philanthropy. Seeking consensus works to make sure research focuses on what the experts in a field see as the most promising approaches, Wilson says, “But it’s also highly averse to new, innovative and out-of-the-box ideas.”

Bill Gates says he wants out-of-the box ideas.

Today was the final day for would-be wacky inventors or scientists exploring the boundaries of acceptability to make their pitch for the next round of funding to the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Exploration program. Last week, the philanthropy announced nine teams, including some local researchers, who received a second round of funding to continue exploring their unlikely ideas.

One of them was the UW’s Keith Jerome, who in fact doesn’t look that crazy. But his idea of treating HIV infection by genetically engineering a parasitical protein (called an endonuclease) to get inside the AIDS virus, HIV, and “muck up” its DNA was, uh, a bit outside the mainstream.

Jerome got $100,000 from the Gates Foundation in 2008 to explore the idea, to prove it has potential. Looks like he did, at least insofar as the Gates Foundation is concerned, because he got $1 million this time to see if he can develop it further over the next few years.

“Nobody else would have funded this,” Jerome says.

That’s the idea, says Wilson. If 95 percent of these grants fail, he says the five percent that don’t would be considered a great return. The foundation already puts a lot of money toward supporting many proven — and desperately needed, if mundane — strategies such as vaccinating children, Wilson says. But innovation is still needed, he notes, if we hope to conquer some of these more entrenched problems of poverty.

“And our approach is gaining traction,” says Wilson, noting that Canada has launched a similar sister program to be run by the government.

So how does the Gates Foundation select its grant Explorations winners if not by expert consensus?

“We like to select for our reviewers people who are not necessarily at the central core of the field,” Wilson says, because the leaders in every field “tend to be skeptical of ideas that come in from the outside.”

The Gates Foundation gets an average of 3,000 applications for each one of these rounds. Each reviewer goes through anywhere from 100 to 200 applications, Wilson said, and selects one gold star project and three silver star projects.

The silver star projects get further review by Wilson’s team and maybe half are finally selected to receive funding. But the “gold star pick” cannot be rejected by anyone else, he says, in order to prevent the tendency for committee review and consensus to dilute innovation and creativity.

For the first time, with this latest round of grant applications, Wilson says they are expanding beyond health into water and sanitation issues. Given that billions of people worldwide now live without access to clean water and sanitation, it will be interesting to see if some inventor has a solution to problems basically caused by population growth, poverty, lack of developing country infrastructure and, to some extent, bad governance.

That will indeed be a grand challenge.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.