According to the NYT, a memo critical of the role of the Gates Foundation's increasing role in global health research and policy was recently released to the media. The World Health Organization's chief of malaria research, Dr. Arata Kochi, is worried that the Gates Foundation's business-minded focus on best practices and leveraged investment is at odds with the way scientific research should be done and the way international health policy should be developed.
WHO was quick to say that Dr. Kochi's views are not those of WHO as a whole. Good thing, too: whatever one might think of Microsoft and its business practices, the Gates Foundation has done incalculable good in addressing health problems that afflict a large proportion of the world's poor. Many of these conditions--such as infectious diarrhea and parasitic disease--are unattractive drug targets for corporations. If the Foundation has made these conditions higher priorities in the research community, I think that's got to be a good thing...and if they've also managed to bring some business discipline to decision making, emphasizing outcomes and return (in health trems) on investment, so much the better. And there's no reason, at least in principle, that you can't make concrete, if incremental, improvements in health today at the same time as other research efforts focus on more long-term, systematic improvement of the public health infrastructure. Both are needed.
Kochi's criticism does raise an interesting point, though, about the way science works. His assertion that centralized funding puts too much power in the hands of the Gates Foundation could just as easily be said about the Federal government--which funds an awful lot of research in the United States. But the bottom line is, the science that gets funded is the science that gets done, and 'twas ever thus. So ... what's on tap for 2009?
Federal funding of research and development for the 2009 fiscal year will be directed much more heavily toward the physical sciences and Homeland Security, and away from the life sciences. The NIH budget award will be the same as for this year--ie, it won't keep up with inflation, which amounts to a net reduction of funds. You can learn more from Science here, or from ScienceProgress here.