When Bill Gates started dabbling at philanthropy back in the 1990s, he initially expressed great interest in population issues. It didn’t really work out. Long story. Let’s just say this was (and is) an especially sensitive issue. People with all sorts of agendas see bogey men coming out of the shadows if anyone ever so much as mentions population control.
But the Gateses are determined people. Perhaps a subtle, indirect approach to family planning will work this time.
Few noticed that a flurry of grant awards given out this week from the Gates Foundation signaled a shift in this direction, a renewed interest in supporting this original philanthropic goal. The Gates program that awarded the grants, previously devoted to fighting disease, for the first time funded research to fight unplanned pregnancy.
“It is a little bit different,” acknowledged Andrew Serazin, a young scientist (and Rhodes Scholar) who helped launch the overall program, known as Grand Challenges Explorations.
On Tuesday, the Seattle philanthropy announced it had awarded its fourth round of 78 grants — $100,000 apiece in “seed money” for all sorts of far-fetched ideas.
The idea behind the Explorations program, Serazin explained, is to support scientific projects that show promise but seem, well, a bit wacky and unconventional – a cell phone app to diagnose malaria; a vaccine that gets into the skin through sweat; parasite-killing lasers; the use of ultrasound as a reversible male contraceptive … to name a few.
Adding “new contraception technologies” as a goal for Explorations fits into the foundation’s broader strategic plans for global health, Serazin said, but he acknowledged it is a bit of a departure from the program’s previous focus on fighting disease. “Issues in family health, like contraception, are becoming more of a focus for the Gates Foundation.”
The Explorations program itself was a shift from the original, larger-scale strategy of the Grand Challenges in Global Health program. Yes, we’re talking about two Gates programs called Grand Challenges. Stay with me here. The original one, with lots of money and big grants for grand projects, was launched by Gates at Davos in 2003 to try to direct more scientists to work on developing world problems.
But the original Grand Challenges was criticized for allegedly favoring Western scientists with big labs at big institutions. So the Explorations program was created to make it easier for smaller labs – and developing country scientists – to get funding for new ideas. So far, Serazin said, about 10 percent of the Explorations grants go to developing country scientists. He said they hope to do better on that score but it will always be the quality of the application – the idea – that counts more than who or where the application comes from.
As of Wednesday, the Grand Challenge’s web site didn’t list the new priority – contraception technologies – under the Goals pull-down menu. But it is in there if you go deeper to this link for more info. I assume the BMGF web masters, notified of this, will have fixed the glitch by the time most folks read this post.