When it comes to funding in science, all bets are off. Scientific research sees around $40 billion per year from federal agencies, but getting one’s hands on that money is far easier said than done. Scientists, especially academics, are strapped for cash.
To ensure the appearance of progress, and to maximize returns on their investment, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tend to focus on research that’s positively groundbreaking. Unfortunately, groundbreaking findings simply don’t come along that often in science. Research is about inquiry and process of elimination; for most scientists, “groundbreaking” is just another word for “predictable”.
This means that most financial support goes to already well-established areas. Academic and independent scientists are driven to ask much safer questions with much surer outcomes. Well-studied fields continue to make strides while murkier and less well-studied areas are left behind, stuck in a vicious cycle: they can’t get funding because they don’t know enough, but they can’t learn more because they can’t get the funding. Learn more about the problems with research funding in my next post.
Enter the potential heroes of the hour: private donors.
Recently, in light of the 100th anniversary of the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Bill Gates announced a $12 million initiative to help fund the development of a universal flu vaccine. Gates and fellow investors are also concerned about our pandemic unpreparedness, and are pushing for a better disease response infrastructure. This “Grand Challenge” is a call to action, meant to spur interdisciplinary scientists to take bigger, more meaningful leaps towards a universal flu shot – a departure from the current status quo of making incremental changes to existing seasonal vaccines.
Gates is a big name in disease research; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has donated over $40 billion to disease research efforts around the world. The idea of concerned philanthropists stepping up to fund scientific research is a comforting one, especially for young scientists and riskier researchers that are often rejected by government funding bodies.
But wealthy donors are not enough on their own. According to the Science Philanthropy Alliance, philanthropic donations reach around $4 billion per year; that’s a big chunk of change, but cannot hope to match the $40 billion provided by federal agencies.
Instead, private funding sources can “fill the gaps” in federal funding, and channel support to the areas of research that most desperately need it.
Risky research is what fuels scientific progress. Basic, early-stage research, for example, often leads nowhere, but without it scientific research as a whole couldn’t exist. Neglecting it would be putting the cart before the horse. You can’t figure out how to cure cancer until you know how it works, right? But because basic research is preliminary and risky by nature, it often gets put on the back burner in favor of development of existing therapies.
Every year, private donors are stepping up to the plate to give even more much-needed support to early-stage, investigative research. They can lend a hand to younger, greener scientists with too few notches on their belt. Most of all, they can allow scientists to get back to their creative roots. To ask real, heavy-hitting questions. To explore.
Philanthropy, at its core a form of civic engagement, also brings an oft-forgotten human element to scientific research. Earlier this year, Bill Gates revealed a personal component to his $100 million donation to dementia research in 2017: his father, Bill Gates Sr., suffers from Alzheimer’s, the devastating disease that affects approximately 5.5 million Americans and nearly 44 million people worldwide.
In the seemingly cold, calculating, cutthroat world that is scientific research, donors – some of whom have deep personal connections to the research they support – remind us that ultimately, science is about people. In the words of the late, great Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”