Michael J. Fox Foundation and Simons Foundation Making Waves in Basic Science

Friday, December 1, 2017

Michael J. Fox Foundation and Simons Foundation Making Waves in Basic Science

With that announcement, the CZI joined the ranks of a handful of other philanthropic mega-donors pumping cash into biomedical research labs. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has devoted more than $40 billion to research on malaria and other infectious diseases that strike hardest in the developing world, while the Michael J. Fox Foundation has contributed more than $700 million to understanding Parkinson’s disease. Others, like the CZI, have much broader goals. But one attribute unites the major players on the philanthropic science-funding scene: they all serve as alternatives to the traditional model of securing federal funding—and could prove especially valuable for life scientists looking to fuel innovative and risky research.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies demonstrate an almost innate wariness of uncertain outcomes, says Gerald Fischbach, Distinguished Scientist and Fellow at the Simons Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds basic science. In fact, many government/federal agencies now require that scientists state in their proposals how their research will be “transformative.” This push comes from continued fiscal belt-tightening that limits the number of applicants government science agencies, especially the NIH, can fund, Fischbach notes. “When the study sections can give out from two to five grants each cycle out of 150 [applications], there’s a real bias against risky research.”

Private funders, on the other hand, have the freedom to build longer time lines into the projects they fund, which means returns on investment need not be immediate. As a result, philanthropic money is often essential to getting uncertain projects off the ground, with government dollars coming in at a later stage in the research once a clearer finish line emerges...