Philanthropy: Think differently and make a difference

Dr Noel Chambers
Dr Noel Chambers

Dr Noel Chambers has more than 20 years experience in start-up companies, commercial research and biotechnology. He has successfully commercialized his own research, held senior management positions in research and business development and acted as the Chief Executive Officer of a number of  biotechnology and health related companies.

In 2009, Dr Chambers’ attention turned to philanthropy where he led the establishment of Research Australia’s successful philanthropy program as the Director of Philanthropy.

He is a member of the Australian Government’s Advisory Council on Intellectual Property (ACIP) and chair of the review into collaborations between publicly‐funded research organisations and industry. 

This post originally appeared in Noel’s blog, Philanthrovate, on 4 March 2012.

“The tough truth is that the drug development funding system is broken where risk is highest.” — Michael J Fox

The drug development system is broken early in the innovation pathway. Similar analogies can be observed across most high technology sectors including the environment, energy and health. In health, this not only affects drugs but devices, diagnostics, biologics and research tools.

The difficulty in translating discoveries from early research to larger collaborative partners with the knowledge and resources to progress the discovery along the research continuum is well documented. It is often referred to as the ‘Valley of Death’.

FasterCures: Crossing Over the Valley of Death [PDF of original report (5.7 Mb)]

Traversing the ‘Valley of Death’ is not only about the science. The ‘Valley of Death’ arises because of a systematic funding gap and also because of a knowledge and reward gap. Reputation, networks, administration, the track record of the organization and research teams, as well as project management and negotiation skills all impact upon the ability to attract potential collaborators. Intellectual property, market opportunity and a demonstrable competitive advantage comprise some of the other significant factors influencing the establishment of successful industry collaborations.

The funding gap exists because traditional project grants such as those provided by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) support academic researchers to undertake research projects in their academic facilities and build research teams in their field of expertise. These grants however, make it difficult for researchers to fund studies that may need to be undertaken by other research groups or contract research organisations to answer questions that may make their innovation more attractive and enable the formation of collaborations.

The knowledge gap exists because academic researchers may not be aware which scientific questions potential collaborators need answered or the way in which those collaborators prefer the research to be undertaken. They may also not have the skills and experience to undertake this research themselves, requiring others to do the research. This is where the reward gap occurs, as research undertaken by others may not be publishable or attributed to the academic researcher. As a result it may not assist them in gaining future grant support, promotions or peer recognition.

The funding gap and academic reward structures

Academic careers, promotions and the stability of employment are built around a competitive grants system and a closely aligned peer reviewed publication record. Organisational metrics are also more closely aligned with input measures (dollars) rather than outcomes and impact.

NHMRC project grant success rates, 2000 – 2009.

Significant emphasis is placed upon academic track records, publications, the quality of journals and citation indexes when reviewing grant applications from typical granting organisations. Lesser emphasis is placed upon the delivery of translational outcomes, community need or the likelihood to deliver an innovative solution.

The performance of researchers by their employers and government is also measured on inputs; primarily funding brought into the university through grants, which is weighted on the source of the funding. It is therefore understandable that researchers put more emphasis on activities that will assist them to be successful in grant applications from bodies such as the NHMRC and NIH.

Some would argue that this encourages researchers to ask the ‘safe’ questions and steer away from undertaking research that may have higher levels of publication risk. It can also be argued that cultural change is required and that new incentives and funding opportunities are required to off-set the competitive drivers for the diminishing success rates for NHMRC funding.

The opportunity for philanthropy

The opportunity exists for philanthropic organisations and individuals to contribute to this change. By supporting the advancement of innovation through the support of specific scientific studies designed to;

  1. Reduce the risk associated with technology development, making them more attractive and competitive to collaborative partners
  2. Answer ‘killer questions’ and free resources (minds and dollars) to explore alternative solutions; and
  3. Introduce cultural change that advances translation and rewards impact.

Philanthropic organisations and intermediaries may also benefit by aligning their social investment portfolios, giving structures and reporting with clearly definable outcomes focused on delivering social and economic benefit with relatively modest and tranched investments.

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