Money for medical research is often wasted. I was reminded of this problem a few weeks ago when I wanted to make a donation to a research foundation in memory of someone who passed away, but had trouble finding a worthy cause in their disease area.
Savvy donors have recognized the problem and are trying to do something about it. I found an excellent issue brief (Investing in Innovative Medical Research) by Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors that was commissioned by FasterCures.
They lay out the substantial challenges to improving the medical research process:
- Lack of incentives for translational research to move basic research discoveries into later stage clinical research that generates treatments and cures
- Institutional constraints that causes companies to become risk averse and focus only on incremental improvements
- Roadblocks to collaboration, including publication pressures and the peer review system that discourage scientists from working together
- Lack of information available to donors to determine the most scientifically promising programs
They cite some encouraging successes including the Myelin Repair Foundation, whose Accelerated Research Collaboration model is is designed to encourage collaboration and use business practices to quickly move discoveries into clinical development.
I very much like their “Donor Considerations” section. Obviously it’s directed at people with substantial means but the principles are valid for all donors. I’ve reprinted it here.
April 16, 2010
Ask to see a research and development strategy:
Make sure that any organization you fund has a plan for ensuring that its scientific discoveries lead to treatment development, and an access and delivery strategy for getting the right treatments to the right patients. The organization should also be considering commercialization potential for its scientific discoveries.
Hold organizations accountable:
Before funding, ask to see a management plan, list of advisors, and information on how the organization measures progress. Also, look for evidence of commitment to collaboration and information sharing.
Manage with interim milestones:
While the bottom line is curing a disease, donors can measure progress incrementally based on pre-defined benchmarks. Getting to breakthroughs takes time and patience, but having a framework for evaluating your investment is key to measuring impact and success.
Be flexible and learn from failures:
Be open to midcourse adjustments as the research process unfolds. Trust the original grantee to make changes in the plan should the need arise. Science is unpredictable, and the variables are many. Learning what does not work could lead you to what does.