This Powerhouse Funder is Still New to Scientific Research. Where Are Grants Going?


When we first wrote about the Open Philanthropy Project—a now-independent outfit created by GiveWell and the foundation of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his spouse Cari Tuna, who remain its principal backers—it was taking a highly deliberative approach to developing its funding methodology. Over the course of several years, OPP laid out its focus areas and the core principles that would guide grantmaking in those areas. 

Scientific research was among the funding priorities that OPP embraced early on, but it also gave itself a long runway to figure out its approach, here. It's no easy thing to determine where new private funding can make the biggest contribution when it comes to science research, a field dominated by big government and industry players. 

It wasn't until last year that OPP's funding in science and health came into focus. One of its moves was to ask the NIH for promising projects that it had to turn away, a handful of which received significant funding from OPP. All told, OPP made over $30 million in recommendations for grants for scientific research in 2017, some of which overlapped with its other funding priorities, such as global health. 

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While OPP describes itself as being in an exploratory process in regard to scientific research, the grants that it's recommended in the past six months offer important hints about its emerging interests. These include $3 million to the MIT Synthetic Neurobiology Group for work that OPP hopes could have "dramatic implications for a variety of sub-fields within brain research." Another $3 million went out to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for a clinical trial of a severe sepsis therapy. Two other big research grants last year—for $6.4 million and $5 million—were recommended for work, respectively, on a canine anticancer vaccine and to support research on the "basic biology of aging-related diseases and impairment."

But the single biggest grant that OPP has recommended so far in this emerging funding portfolio has been $11.3 million for health science research into what may seem a fairly pedestrian disease—the flu. 

The grant went to the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington, to fund the development of a universal flu vaccine. The institute is developing new tools to engineer proteins that can be used not only to make a better flu vaccine, but also to create medicines for other diseases, as well as new diagnostics and biomaterials. The new grant money will accelerate their research into the basic science as well as the hoped-for universal flu vaccine.

    But why did the OPP choose to fund flu research when there are so many other dreadful and exotic health problems? On closer examination, the flu matches several of the OPP's key stated aims: fund areas that affect lots of people, that may be somewhat neglected in by other funders, and contain a substantial element of fundamental science.  

    The flu definitely fits these criteria. Every year, the country's epidemiologists must make an educated guess as to which flu virus subtype (they have names like H1N1, H2N2, and H5N1) will dominate the coming winter's flu season. That prediction determines which vaccines will be manufactured in bulk and distributed throughout the country. But sometimes, they guess wrongly, and even the people who take the time get a shot are not well protected from the bug that's going around that winter. 

    For most people, a case of the flu falls somewhere between the lousy and the miserable, but for some patients, including older folks or others with weakened immune systems, it can be deadly. A hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 500 million people around the world—one out of every three people on the planet at the time. The Spanish flu is still around, by the way, but now, it's known as the H1N1 subtype. 

    The 2017-2018 flu season was one of the worst in recent years, along with pneumonia that killed some 4,000 people each week during its peak. That represented one in 10 American deaths during the period.

    A universal flu vaccine of the sort envisioned by the Institute for Protein Design could dramatically reduce illness and death, both by reducing the potential for forecasting errors, but also because the new vaccine is expected to provide protection against the flu for five years, not just a single year, as is the case with the current shots.