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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Gates Foundation Grants Try To Speed HIV Vaccine Through Researchers' Cooperation

Last week, we wrote about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett joining forces to form the world's largest charitable foundation. We talked about the men, their businesses and their money. Now we'll say a brief word about one of the actual philanthropic endeavors.

The Gates Foundation this week announced the awards of $287 million to 16 teams of researchers who will intensify the work toward a vaccine against HIV. An innovation in these grants is that the researchers must coordinate their efforts with each other. In fact, some of the grant money is dedicated to the building of a common computer network and database through which the research results will be shared.

We are not experts in philanthropy, so all we know is what we read in the press. But an article on these grants by the Associated Press is summarized on the website one of the main publications in the field, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, so we presume that its interpretation is trustworthy. This article emphasizes the dramatic change this structure of cooperative grants brings to the problem. From the beginning AIDS research has been fragmented and slowed by rivalries among various scientists and pharmaceutical firms. Medical research results in general are often handled with a secrecy akin to private businesses' efforts to protect "trade secrets". Now, in sharp contrast, the Gates grants require the individual teams to share information about studies in progress, data and outcomes to try to speed the development of this badly needed vaccine.

To be sure, the whole trouble with an HIV vaccine isn't just the politics of the research industry. The virus itself is tough. It mutates frequently, so standard vaccine formulae quickly become ineffectual. It behaves in other complex ways that render untenable medical science's usual approaches to vaccine-making.

We wish these researchers well; we have lost entirely too many friends – and a cousin's husband – to AIDS, to say nothing of the massive problem in Africa and elsewhere. We also highlight the way this grant structure continues to alter the face of philanthropy. Philanthropists who have a business background, such as Bill Gates, would automatically think about solving a problem using the most efficient way anyone can find. As we become better acquainted with this evolving arena of American life, we see what a blessing private individuals have been able to cast for the rest of us by sharing their fortunes. They don't expect a personal return on their investments – and these are investments – but they do expect results for society. We wish them well too!

Coming next: some research of our own on how ordinary folks, like you and me, spend our money.


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