Where are the deep pockets?

There was a period of time where I only used the name Bill Gates thus: “F#@$ing Bill Gates! Bloody Microsoft hunk of junk!” The accompanying visual was most likely to be the blue screen of death.

These days I have entirely different feelings about him. I’m likely to be singing his praises when I’m hanging in a nursing home. Through his new career in philanthropy (along with the very impressive Melinda Gates), he has proven that he can use his ridiculous level of wealth and formidable mind to make a real impact in world health, education and development. They’ve already achieved amazing things through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Chances are, when we solve problems like malaria, the Gates Foundation will have been a big part of that story.

So, why the love letter? Well, the world’s richest geek was on Q and A this evening (the video isn’t up at the ABC iView site yet, but I don’t doubt you’ll find it soon). Beyond having a very high word count on “research”, as he is clearly of the view that research is the key to progress, there’s a couple of things about his philanthropy that are interesting.

The first is the level of engagement with the subject. It is very evident that he is not just throwing money from Olympus. He is seriously engaged with the details of what they’re doing, and the difference they hope to make. Seeing a multibillionaire who clearly has some concept of the challenges facing the broader world, or the potential benefits of addressing global health and equality issues was more refreshing than a faux Scandinavian deodorant ad. It also provided a chance to reflect on all the Australian überwealthy similarly engaging with the challenges facing the world, beyond just reminding us that African miners want to work for $2 a day. Yep, just think of all of them at a big party (and feel free to grab that spiky tumbleweed rolling on by to use for an acupuncture session and release the negative energy that’s building up).

The other interesting thing was the foundation’s readiness to consider “blue sky” ideas – bolt from the blue thoughts that might seem outlandish but just maybe have a chance of making a difference. Precisely the sorts of ideas that get suffocated by the oppressive national competitive grants system.

I can’t help but reflect again on the need for novel ideas and opportunities to fund the research that will drive the development of cultures everywhere. In an environment where government-funded options are ever more competitive, and ever more pressured by political realities, what other options are out there?

Could direct philanthropy or charity organisations provide the way forward? Well, there are some groups out there supporting research (the Brain Foundation, the Ramaciotti Foundation etc). I can’t think of any particular big ticket philanthropists engaging with research in a similar fashion though.  The other challenge for not for profit organisations is the way we think about charities and how they should raise and spend their money (and an extra disclosure here, I spend some of my time working at CareFlight, a registered charity which devotes some of the money it raises to research).

That issue is a complex one itself, but I can’t do better than refer anyone who has a spare 20 minutes to watch this awesome TED talk from Dan Pallotta (seriously, clear 20 minutes) in which he very clearly states exactly the obstacles we put in the way of charities growing and carrying out their goals. Most particularly, we tend to focus on the proportional amount they spend on “frontline services” rather than growing bigger projects or re-investing to raise larger overall amounts. For the US (and, I believe the UK), total donations to charity as a proportion of GDP haven’t changed much for 20-30 years. So as much as there might be an interest from NFPs to get involved, there are issues that need to be addressed.

What about other novel ideas? We need to start exploring different mechanisms to fund research, or at least expand the range of opportunities for researchers to raise funds. Hell I’d even consider a special research economic exclusion zone if it would help. If social impact bonds (sometimes called social benefit bonds) can be used to fund preventive programs or services, could this model be used to fund basic research (or other forms of research)? Or wouldn’t it be good if more clever people who understand economics came up with suggestions like this from Chris Becker where he lays out preliminary thoughts for other sorts of investment bonds to support research (with some of the fancy economics lingo that makes my eyes glaze over when I go to see the accountant, but I like the concept).

The point is that research funding options in Oz (and I’m sure lots of other places) remain a bit monochromatic in their offering. There are plenty of novel ideas coming from researchers. Is it asking too much for a few clever types to exercise some imagination and deliver on new ways to fund research? Anybody out there got a clever idea? (Yep, I’m looking at all 6 of you who will actually have a look at this entry, I want answers dammit!)

PS The whole area of social impact bonds is pretty interesting anyway. Having been lucky enough to meet the very clever Emma Tomkinson a while back, you’ll find her blog has a plethora of stuff related to these instruments and examples of where they’ve been used. It’s well worth a look.

And I really would love to hear about any other novel options for funding research.