Funding the Hunt for Elusive Answers on Obesity

Everyone has a theory, but thousands of studies later, we seem to have few good solutions to the fact that America’s obesity rates have tripled since the 1960s. As part of its Research Integrity program, one foundation hopes a surge in private funding will get to the bottom of this maddeningly confusing problem. 

If you’ve read more than one article about nutrition or obesity, you have a good understanding of just how poor our understanding of the issue is. The cause is sugar, carbohydrates, fat, sitting down, soda, wheat. There are just about as many theories as there are people holding theories. Even with the recent news about a dip in childhood obesity, it's a perplexing problem.

One initiative believes the problem lies in a lack of rigor behind the mountain of research on the topic. Rigor takes money, more than public funding can typically offer, and the John and Laura Arnold Foundation has money. Enter the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSI). 

The Arnold Foundation launched in 2008, the philanthropic project of an Enron-energy-trader-turned-hedge-fund-billionaire and his corporate attorney and executive wife. The Houston-based couple have retired from the moneymaking world and are now full-time in the business of giving it away, with $1.3 billion in foundation assets and accelerating grantmaking. (See IP's profile of John Arnold and our profile of Laura Arnold.) The funder gives to a unique mix of causes, the biggest being education and the second-biggest Research Integrity, a program that seeks to call out bad science and bring more transparency and rigor to the field.  

In the case of NuSI, that means not just watchdogging methods, but backing a huge push to build up the body of solid, dependable nutrition and obesity research, an area known for being confusing and fruitless in terms of solutions. The initiative received nearly $5 million in seed funding in 2012, and in the following year, a stunning $35.5 million commitment to continue the work. 

Legend has it, the idea for the institute came to John Arnold when he heard science journalist Gary Taube on a podcast. Taube has been beating the drum for years that our body of research on nutrition is insufficient. The problem, he says, is that reliable studies involve long-term and relentless monitoring of human subjects to gather data that is useful, and that kind of endeavor costs way more than the typical NIH grants can cover.

NuSI plans to support the leading scientists to conduct bigger studies than they’ve been able to do historically, and the super team they're assembling is impressive. Stanford and Johns Hopkins-educated physician Peter Attia is the other founder of the center. They have an elite board of directors and advisors (including Four-Hour self-help guru Tim Ferriss). The initiative is currently funding studies by the Boston Children’s Hospital, Stanford University and a consortium investigating the “is a calorie a calorie” problem. 

While NuSI is by far the biggest grantee of the Arnold Foundation's program, it’s not the only one, and the funder is still relatively new and getting its footing. The truly unique way the foundation is pursuing attempts like this and the Open Science Institute makes them one of the top research funders to keep an eye on in coming years.

Read the IP profile of the Arnold Foundation's research funding here.