Bill Gates is known for blasting the anti-baldness industry.
His objection has nothing to do with baldness per se, but rather with the priorities of the scientific research
community. Why, he wants to know, do we spend more on lifestyle conveniences like
growing hair on heads that naturally resist it than on matters of life-and-death
like preventing malaria?
One reason the Gates Foundation exists is to rebalance these
priorities—to make sure that more money flows toward solving the urgent
problems that keep billions of people from leading healthy and productive
lives. Science is a powerful tool, and if the world wields it in the right way,
we believe the human conditions will improve to an extent we’ve never seen
But that still leaves a question: What is the best way to
encourage scientists to address the most difficult challenges poor people face?
For the 15 years since the Gates Foundation was founded, we have usually tried
to identify the challenges first—say, the lack of an effective diagnostic test
for tuberculosis—and then tried to get scientists to work on them.
However, ours is not the only model for funding science. Some
of the leaders in the field, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)
and the Wellcome Trust, start by identifying the most ambitious and talented
scientists, on the theory that whatever work they do will benefit humanity in
ways no one could have foreseen.
Today, the Gates Foundation is joining an exciting
partnership with HHMI, Wellcome Trust, and the Portuguese Gulbenkian Foundation
that will help dozens of scientific researchers around the world pursue
whichever subjects capture their imagination. This amounts to an experiment for
us. What happens when we support researchers whose general area of research aligns
with our interests as a way to promote science on behalf of the poorest?
Research Scholars Program support early-mid-career scientists—from non-G7
countries - whose work shows the potential to lead to global-health
breakthroughs. We decided to focus on early-mid career scientists because they
have already demonstrated their ability and yet are only now entering the most
creative phase of their careers. We decided to focus on non-G7 scientists
because they have less access to funding in general, and because they are
likely to have more first-hand experience with the sorts of problems the Gates
Foundation is interested in solving.
The Research Scholars we support will not necessarily be
global health scientists, but their work will be relevant to the key questions
guiding the field. And once they are selected to receive an award, we will have
no formal say over how their work progresses, though we will follow it with
In addition to financial support, we will also be providing
intellectual support that we believe will help the recipients engage with the
scientific challenges of developing countries. Perhaps the most important thing
we can do is merely to put the research scholars in touch with each other,
since the community they create will be uniquely diverse.
Moreover, we will help them become active parts of the scientific
communities formed by other Gates Foundation grantees dedicated to science for
the benefit of the poorest. For example, through a program that called Grand
Challenges we fund along with many partners around the world, we bring hundreds of
scientists to an annual
Grand Challenges meeting that is among the biggest and most diverse global
health gatherings in the world. We are excited to see what the Grand Challenges grantees can learn from
the Research Scholars, and vice versa.
We won’t have a definitive answer about how this experiment
works out for many years. And that’s okay. It will take time to see how this
support influences the scientists’ entire lives’ work. There is a very slight
possibility that a Research Scholar will find the cure for baldness. We are
confident, though, that at the very least we will help very smart people do
novel and exciting scientific work. Hopefully, some of the research scholars
will generate breakthrough insights that change the way global health is done.
No matter what, the Gates Foundation will learn lessons that
help us refine our approach to combining research and global development so
that more people are empowered to improve their lives with the best that
science has to offer.