Setting policies

The interesting component of grantmaking, to me, is the what not the how. Too often Foundations, particularly Foundations supporting scientific research get caught up in the application process. How many pages? Should applications allow additional or appended information? Should we require the use of foundation-generated forms? What expenses should be allowed? I am not saying that process doesn’t matter. It is important, if a Foundation issues RFAs and solicits applications, that there are processes in place that have integrity and that there are principled ways of keeping as level a playing field as possible so that decisions to fund or not fund can be made. Still, most of the real work comes in developing a strong institutional compass concerning what it is that a Foundation will support and being able to articulate the choice of directions. Foundations supporting research know that they do not operate in a vacuum – and must continually evaluate how their values intersect with the norms and values of academic institutions. Too often I hear conversations lamenting the failure of Foundations to support some items Universities want research budgets to support without any accompanying discussion as to whether such expenses are a legitimate cost for research budgets. Similarly – the shifting of internal expenses to external sources of funding is really questioned on a fundamental level. Rather, Foundations are often asked to be responsive to the needs or perceived needs of University administrators. For small funders, the shifting of burdens is not a zero sum game. Every decision to fund is also a decision not to fund. Such decisions should rest on principles.

Scientific uncertainty and the quest for explanations

Recently there has been a spate of editorials discussing the incontrovertible eveidence that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. An example can be found in today’s Wall Street Journal:

In this blog and in other places I have written in one way or another about the negative resuts of public discussion and policy making running ahead of the science the discussions and policy making are supposedly based on. Cognitively, we do not deal with uncertainty very well – the anecdotes about our perceptions of risk and on human decision-making are legion. The most familiar example is the number of people who will not risk flying but drive thousands of miles on the highway.
So even thought the science supporting the link behind MMR vaccine and autism was weak right from the beginning – the findings preyed on the fears and the uncertainties of parents who had to make a decision. And it offered an fairly easy to understand explanation to parents suffering with trying to understand how a terrible disease could be afflicting a child. The MMR provided an external, readily identified enemy to blame. Perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that good data AFTER THE FACT can rarely dislodge doubt. Energy, resources, and skill have been deflected from the real problem to a fake one. There is lots of balme to share. As private funders, and disease advocates – it is time for us to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves what we could do differently next time.