What's Behind This Ambitious Push to Boost Biomedical Research Worldwide?

Heavyweight science funder HHMI has recruited two of the largest private foundations in the world to help expand one of its biomedical research programs. The goal is to support early career researchers working outside of world’s wealthiest countries.

We often look at private research philanthropy in the context of stagnant public funds in the United States. But especially when it comes to fighting disease, science is a fundamentally global pursuit, and one that is often more severely underfunded outside of wealthy nations like the U.S. and the U.K. 

Such countries’ governments and charities do provide support beyond their borders, and the latest such initiative is a team effort from some of the world’s largest private funders of global health and biomedical research. 

Related: The Funders Behind Advanced Microscopes Leading a 'Revolution’ in Biology Research

The project devotes $37 million to expand a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research program, adding funding from other philanthropic giants. HHMI itself is the largest private funder of academic biomedical research in the United States, with $18 billion in assets. You may have heard of the other American partner, the Gates Foundation, the largest in the world with a $40 billion endowment, concerned outside the United States primarily with health.

HHMI has also brought in some European philanthropies that are nothing to sneeze at. The U.K.-based Wellcome Trust is right up there with Gates, with more than $25 billion in assets, also concerned primarily with health. And the fourth partner is Portuguese funder Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which funds a handful of focus areas, including science and development.

While it is a partnership, the International Research Scholars Program is essentially an amped-up version of a program that HHMI started in 2012 to support early career scientists worldwide. It’s also an extension of the foundation’s overall approach to funding research, giving individuals flexible, multi-year support, and linking them up with their growing network of some 300-plus researchers on the payroll.

The program provides $650,000 over five years for up to 50 researchers who have run a lab for fewer than seven years, and who work in countries outside the G7 nations. They’ll also participate in research meetings to foster the exchange of information and collaboration. So rather than grants for projects or institutions, the goal is to support top people in several countries and link them up to a research network. 

HHMI has funded this kind of international work since 1991, but is increasing its efforts. Teaming up with other funders allows it to expand this particular initiative. Given the enormous wealth behind the partnership, there’s some serious potential for even more resources, if things go well.

One example of such a grantee HHMI cites from the 2012 round is Thumbi Ndung’u, who grew up in rural Kenya, completed a Ph.D. at Harvard, and then returned to Africa to make a difference in the fight against HIV. You can see how providing flexible funding for such scientists could strengthen both the ecosystem of minds working on these worldwide problems, as well as the research presence on the ground in places where it's needed the most.

Funding for international research is especially important against the backdrop of grave global health threats such as recent Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks. Private funders like Gates, Wellcome and Paul Allen’s philanthropies have been writing checks to fight these threats. But the worldwide responses have highlighted the need to support medical research as a global endeavor, not just as the domain of the wealthiest states. 

Related: HHMI Tripled its Diversity Fellowship. Can It Make a Difference?