Gates Foundation's 'Grand Challenges' Has Yet to Yield Results

Despite an investment of a billion dollars over ten years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges initiative has yet to yield tangible results, the Seattle Times reports.

Launched in 2005 with an initial commitment of $250 million, Grand Challenges has awarded nearly half a billion dollars to forty-five research "dream teams" working on everything from new tuberculosis drugs and vaccine-delivery strategies to advanced mosquito repellents and genetically engineered bananas. But during an event marking the initiative's tenth anniversary, Gates Foundation co-chair Bill Gates said it would be at least another decade before even the most promising leads paid off. In part, said Gates, that's because the foundation underestimated the difficulties involved in introducing new technologies in countries where millions of people lack access to basic necessities. In response, in 2008 the foundation launched a second initiative, Grand Challenges Explorations, that awards small, highly focused grants, though to date none of its projects has borne fruit, either. Foundation officials said that while many Grand Challenges projects have led to new knowledge or tools likely to prove valuable down the road, only about 20 percent are on track to create real-world impact — a success rate Gates said is in line with what he expected at the outset of the initiative.

Nevertheless, the initiative appears to be evolving. In addition to risky, cutting-edge science, many of the most recent projects it has funded address more traditional research efforts, including work on malaria and AIDS vaccines, while many eschew new technologies altogether.

Still, critics of the initiative told the Seattle Times that initiatives like Grand Challenges demonstrate the foundation's continuing emphasis on technological fixes rather than on the social and political roots of poverty and disease. "The main harm is in the opportunity cost," said David McCoy, a public health expert at Queen Mary University of London. "It's in looking constantly for new solutions, rather than tackling the barriers to existing solutions," he added, and in the process diverting the global community's attention from those solutions.

Sandi Doughton. "After 10 Years, Few Payoffs From Gates' 'Grand Challenges'." Seattle Times 12/20/2012.