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NYTimes (following Seattle Times) examines changes in Gates Fdn’s Grand Challenges

The New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. today took a close look at the impact of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s scientific research stimulus project called Grand Challenges in Global Health, and why so many of its projects are losing funding.

The Seattle Times’ Sandi Doughton explored the same ground a month and a half ago, even without getting the kind of special access to Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation that McNeil got (I know, because I was refused access to the same meeting McNeil, the only journalist, was allowed to attend).

And, in my opinion, Sandi’s article was much more revealing of the real reaction many in the scientific community had to the changes in the Gates program. But more on that in a bit.

McNeil, who I consider one of the world’s leading global health reporters, got some good quotes from Bill Gates —  “We were naive when we began” — about having too high expectations when it came to the pace of progress hoped for with their Grand Challenges project.

Gates told the New York Times that the Grand Challenges program had been scaled back in part because of disappointment at the lack of the expected progress. The Grand Challenges program is now doling out smaller grants, of $100,000, rather than funding the large-scale, ambitious initiatives. McNeil writes:

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.

The NY Times article mostly then goes on to describe in detail some of the de-funded and ongoing projects — and the rationale behind the philanthropy’s decisions to renew or deny.

One of those is Paul Yager, a UW professor whose team had been trying to make a cheap diagnostic lab “on a card” but never quite got there — and eventually got beat out by a team pursuing the same idea with a different approach led by George Whitesides of Harvard.

Despite losing his Gates grant, Yager was upbeat:

The Gates grant, he said “took me places I never would have gone, like a South African township. I have so many students I have to beat them back with a stick, and I’m left with a burning desire to accomplish the goals of the program.”

The Seattle Times also wrote about Yager, who was also diplomatic about losing Gates funding. But missing from McNeil’s article were the kinds of comments I heard from many in the scientific community about the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s shift in strategy. Sandi writes:

“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?’ “

I heard plenty of the same thing from scientists I know as well, usually off-the-record because why punch the world’s biggest gift horse in the mouth? There’s always another grant application.

But what surprised and dismayed many scientists was the impatience of the foundation for quick results and the fact that even some successful projects did not get further support.

This continues to be a beef that many scientists have with the Gates Foundation so it’s curious to see no mention of this at all in the New York Times article.

But beyond the concerns about Grand Challenges’ change in strategy, and the disruptions caused to many in the research community, both articles emphasize that the overall impact of the Gates Foundation project should not be missed. It has helped to make the health problems of poor countries high-profile and of much greater interest to many of the best minds in science.

And that’s a good thing.


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.