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In Lean Times, Scientists May Eye Funding from Private Foundations and Prizes

WASHINGTON, DC (GenomeWeb News) – With the National Institutes of Health facing another year of virtually flat funding, a panel of science policy veterans presented the roughly 500 scientists and science watchers at an American Association for the Advancement of Science conference here last week with a variety of alternative means for financial support of research projects.
Speakers from the science policy in-crowd at AAAS’s Forum on Science and Technology Policy described some alternative funding options, particularly the types of available research foundation funding and the potential strategic role of competitive prizes to push science forward.
Biomedical scientists hunting for new funding when federal dollars are drying up are likely to apply to private foundations funded either by thousands of donors or by the super wealthy donors who have established their own foundations.
Donna Dean, who is science advisor for Lewis-Burke Associates and a AAAS committee member, said scientists can turn to a large number of disease-focused private funders supporting clinical medicine and basic science. Dean spoke on behalf of Susan Fitzpatrick, who is VP of the McDonnell Foundation and who prepared a speech about private funding but was unable to attend the forum.
Foundations are unique in that they are more able than government or industry-backed efforts to support research that does not necessarily rank high in public interest or offer the promise of blockbuster profits. Having a large number of private funding organizations helps to ensure “the flourishing of alternative models and approaches that may depart from the common wisdom or challenge the status quo,” Dean said.
They also may support controversial or unpopular topics where government is reluctant to tread, and they can nurture ideas that are still early in their inception, she said. Large private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Noble Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and many others have supported a wide array of genomics research.
Private foundation funding for biomedical research swelled by 36 percent between 1994 and 2003, to around $2.5 billion, according to a study published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The author of that paper, Hamilton Moses, later estimated that private foundation funding may actually be over $5 billion.
Some private foundations support a variety of projects using a broad model, such as the Gates Foundation, while other privately endowed foundations focus on particular diseases or areas of interest. The latter foundations often are established by families with a connection to the disease who feel that mainstream research is not sufficient or focused enough on their cause, Dean noted. The Simons Foundation, which invests in a number of studies focused on autism, is an example of one such group.
Voluntary health organizations or disease-specific charities, such as the American Cancer Society, commingle their research funding with education, advocacy, and awareness campaigns that help to generate new donors and draw government and industry support. These often were founded to aid an ongoing research effort.
All of these types of private funders may make calls for proposals and will support investigator-initiated science. These tend to be smaller grants and may go to scientists at various stages of their careers.
In addition, these foundations also influence pubic policy and “weigh in on setting government funding priorities,” Dean said.
But, there are drawbacks to private funding. The competitive environment makes it difficult to test and evaluate new funding models, and the arguments about whose methods are right or are better can make it difficult to learn from these new models as natural philanthropic experiments, according to Dean.
If a competitive environment makes it difficult to test new funding models, as Dean said, Stephen Merrill thinks that promoting competitiveness through prizes may be worth looking at as a way to fuel important new innovation-oriented science.
Merrill, who is executive director of Science, Technology and Economic Policy at The National Academies, told the AAAS forum that there has been a new, bipartisan interest about the use of prizes as a public policy tool to promote innovation.
Prizes have a long history as an innovation tool, Merrill said, and date back to the 18th Century in England. There was the Safe Ocean Navigation prize running between 1714 and 1793, the 1927 Orteig Prize for trans-Atlantic flight, and recently there has been Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge robot prize.
Probably the most notable prize in human biology right now is the Archon X Prize for Genomics, which will award $10 million to the first research team that can sequence 100 human genomes within ten days for less than $10,000.
Prizes generally have a defined goal to achieve a technical objective, and they do encourage team-building, undertaking participatory projects, and blending expertise from different fields, said Merrill.
He noted that research of prizes over a 91-year period found them to be hotly contested, highly correlated to patenting activity, and that the winners generally invested more than three times their monetary awards. These prize contests led to “significant improvements in technological invention,” Merrill added, and their products were promoted chiefly through the use of a “mark of approval” advertising technique.
There also are some who advocate using prizes to drive medical research and drug development to replace the current patent and intellectual property system of medical innovation and drug development.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I – VT) introduced a bill in Congress last fall that would undertake just such change, and would use federal funds as incentives for drug developers instead of the potential gain from patents. The goal of the law, dubbed the Medical Innovation Prize Act of 2007, would be to bring down the cost of drugs and medical devices by circumventing the patent model, and to give the public more of a voice in which drugs are developed.
The bill, which has no co-sponsors at this time, was introduced and currently sits in the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
But prizes also have drawbacks, noted Merrill. They are not really appropriate for the support of science aimed at improving our understanding of nature or to build the base upon which innovations may be developed in the future, he said.
Another difficulty with prizes is finding ways to take topics and turn them into feasible contests. The objectives must be ambitious, but not impossible, and it must be meaningful to the broader public and must attract the right kinds of candidates, according to Merrill.
While Merrill does not seem ready to get behind a prize-focused model for funding science entirely, he believes they can serve some specific science and technology needs effectively.
“Their niche is almost certainly larger than prizes are filling now, but it is probably not very large and certainly not unlimited,” he said.

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