Gates Foundation Assesses Impact of 'Grand Challenges' Grants

Looking back on his foundation's recently concluded Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, Bill Gates acknowledges he was naïve about many things but stopped short of calling the initiative a failure, the New York Times reports.

For example, said Gates, the foundation was well intentioned in pursuing development of vaccines that do not need refrigeration, but he greatly underestimated how long it takes to move a new vaccine from lab to clinical trials to the manufacturing phase and finally acceptance in third-world countries. "Back then, I thought 'Wow, we'll have a bunch of thermostable vaccines by 2010.' But we're not even close to that," he told the Times. "I'd be surprised if we have even one by 2015."

The Gates Foundation recently brought together forty-three scientists who received five-year grants totaling $450 million — more than double what he originally planned — through the initiative to assess the results and determine who would receive additional funding. Despite discoveries on many fronts, up to two-thirds of the grants either were not yet renewed or may not be in the near future.

But an un-renewed grant does not mean a project failed. For example, Rafi Ahmed, an Emory University immunologist, used his grant to make discoveries that could make it possible for people with AIDS and possibly cancer to take a break from the toxic drugs they are given to battle their disease. Both commercial and government funders have offered Ahmed grants to continue his research.

Looking back, Gates had mixed feelings about what the initiative had accomplished. "On drawing attention to ways that lives might be saved through scientific advances, I'd give us an A," he said. "But I thought some would be saving lives by now, and it'll be more like in ten years from now."

Donald G. McNeil Jr.. "Five Years in, Gauging Impact of Gates Grants." New York Times 12/20/2010.