Over the last decade or so a new group of biomedical/disease research funders have burst on the scene getting quite a bit of attention – the self-named and self-promoting “venture philanthropists.” Styling themselves after high risk venture capitalists VPs are supposed to be doing something very different from what I imagine must be the plain, old, non-adjectified philanthropists. In practice, from what I can see, the VPs do what most of us in biomedical philanthropy do – look for good ideas and fund them in the hope of moving the knowledge ball further down the field. They are not uncovering the “genius in the garage” or finding some hidden gem no one else has been able to find. They often fund researchers at the top biomedical institutions – don’t have to venture too far afield to find them! VPs hold meetings, sponsor workshops, make grants. In many ways their playbook looks much like the one used by the plain old Ps. The risk for VPs (and of course VP is all about high risk, novelty, outside the box, on the edge, pushing the envelope – you get the picture) is the lure of what is presented as a bold move and sometimes, (to continue along with the sports metaphors I imagine are fairly popular in VP strategy sessions) they simply fall for the long lob or the field goal too far. Intentions are one thing, reality is another. But hey – in the game of public relations, you DO get points for trying!
I for one am tired of theVPs. More importantly, I think they do not do science, philanthropy, or patients any good.
For us plain old Ps it is always a bit worrisome to think that we do not yet have treatments or cures for some of the most devastating and complex diseases affecting humans because we haven’t been stamping our feet forcefully enough. Is advancing (or accelerating, VPs love the word accelerating) much needed clinical interventions just a matter of demanding them of the “blue ribbon” panel munching Danish at a fancy resort! How terrible if all this time the plain Ps just didn’t know that wishing (or asserting) could makes things so. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that there may not be ways that private investment could spur clinical advances. I just don’t believe there is A way. What we are all doing – VPs and plain old Ps – are experiments. We should try different approaches; this after all is the beauty of philanthropy. Private funders should represent a diversity of thinking on trying to figure out how to take knowledge into practice. Because if anyone asserts they know how to do this – they are wrong.
Part of the problem is that there are yawning knowledge gaps between research and care. The goals of the research enterprise are not even matched to clinical needs. The most promising preclinical work can fall apart when put up against real diseases in real people. We may need some radical new ideas – or we may need just some basic knowledge. We may even need a better understanding of exactly what it is we are trying to do. Curing cancer is not a real goal. Monolithic “cancer” doesn’t exist. Real risk is thinking a slogan is a research goal. What we really need is honesty – what do we know, what don’t we know? What assumptions are we making about disease that are just wrong? Are we studying human disease – or are we focused on the experimental models we’ve created? When funders demand progress – researchers will respond with what looks like progress. We’ll have mice, and chips. We’ll get scans and cascades. We’ll be told that we have to break silos, invest in career development, fund collaborations, host a meeting (and the more exotic the location the more senior the participants).
So whether you’re a new VP or just a plain old P – be humble. Be skeptical of claims. Be even more skeptical of your own claims.