A Research Funder Knocks on the NIH's Door Looking for Ideas—And Big Grants Flow

photo:  angellodeco/shutterstock

photo:  angellodeco/shutterstock

One challenge in science philanthropy is finding the right niche where a grantmaker can really make an impact. Research is complex and expensive, after all, and even the wealthiest donors are working with a lot less money than corporate or government funding sources.

The Open Philanthropy Project—a funding outfit anchored by the wealth of Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna—has been facing that very challenge, and over the past year, it ran quite a unique RFP to track down some high-risk, high-reward research to fund. 

In short, it asked the NIH for projects it had to turn away, and ended up making nearly $11 million in grants to a handful of the applicants. It was more elaborate than that, of course, considering we’re talking about OPP, one of philanthropy’s most methodical funders. 

The project, which officially became an independent organization last year, has identified science research as one of its four main categories of giving, due to the field’s potential for transformative breakthroughs and the opportunity to back risky projects other sectors won’t. The organization has been feeling out giving in the category and making some sizable grants, but has yet to pin down focus areas within it.

In late 2016, the the team looked to a grantmaking program run by the National Institutes of Health called the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award (makes sense). It’s an open call for proposals that has no budget limit and no requirement for preliminary data. So it’s meant to be edgier than conventional government grants, which tend be on the safer side—limited in size and requiring strong evidence of viability. 

But the government agency only funds eight to 12 of the proposals out of up to 300 it receives per year. So OPP figured it would ask the NIH about those that didn’t make the cut. Specifically, the NIH directly invited those it could not fund to resubmit their proposals to the Open Philanthropy Project, along with reviewer notes they received back from the agency. 

This resulted in $10.8 million across four grants over the course of 2017. The largest recipient was an Arizona State researcher who received $6.4 million to test out a cancer vaccine on pet dogs. Just over $2 million went to a University of Notre Dame scientist to develop a new tool for sequencing protein molecules. A grant to Rockefeller University for $1.5 million will explore a mechanism in viruses (relevant to OPP’s interest in pandemics and biosecurity). And an $825,000 grant to UC San Francisco will support research on a stem cell treatment for regenerating human livers.

If this sounds like a unique approach to science philanthropy, it is. But it’s this kind of curiosity in action we’ve come to expect from the Open Philanthropy Project. The outfit started as a partnership between Moskovitz and Tuna’s foundation Good Ventures, and effective, altruism-influenced charity evaluator GiveWell. OPP is now an independent LLC that advises on grants funded mostly by the couple, but some additional donors as well. 

Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, is worth almost $15 billion, and the couple signed the Giving Pledge, so OPP has potential to become a real powerhouse in Silicon Valley philanthropy.

The organizatio has a rare zeal for efficiency and bang-for-the-buck, as well as transparency, as it exhaustively documents its activities through blog posts and other shared documents. The same is true for these NIH-related grants, so you can read much more about the process they used to vet the large number of applications on the blog. It's hard to think of another funder that's so candid about how the sausage gets made. 

It’s not clear if this is going to be a regular thing for OPP, or where, precisely, its science research funding is headed. The blog indicates that this was partly a way to test the waters for what underfunded, risky research opportunities are out there. One recent dispatch on their science giving indicates they’ll be broadly scanning the field for future standout research opportunities. 

Still, the RFP offers an interesting take on science philanthropy. Most science funders try to distinguish themselves as much as they can from government agencies, selecting highly targeted niches, whether in strategy or issue. It’s refreshing to see a funder knock on the door of the NIH to see what their budget’s not covering. OPP was able to pursue risky topics given the theme of the NIH program involved. They also followed their own review process, and found that the projects their advisors found compelling often differed quite a bit from the agency’s review.

It would be interesting to see more private funders coordinate directly with federal agencies in the future, bringing their own outside insights and processes to augment larger channels of giving.