Speech to EU Research Ministers
January 26, 2016
I’ve always been a big believer in R&D. When I was at Microsoft, we made big investments in research and innovation. It’s one of the things that made the company special.
What the public often doesn’t understand about research is that it’s a hit-and-miss venture. You don’t know which paths will lead to something amazing, and which will turn out to be blind alleys.
Research is, by definition, searching. Many of the important breakthroughs that have driven growth and improved our quality of life trace their funding back to government.
Publically-funded research helped create the Internet and microprocessors. It led to the discoveries of penicillin and monoclonal antibodies – which revolutionized medicine and health care. And it fostered a green revolution a half century ago that saved hundreds of millions of people from starvation.
In many sectors, the market creates big incentives to invest in research. Technology companies know in a few months or years if their new ideas will pay off.
But in some crucial areas, these market signals simply don’t work. That’s where government investments are especially important.
One of these areas is energy. We need new approaches to energy if we’re going to provide it for the poorest and also fight climate change. But energy companies tend to underinvest in research because it takes so long for new ideas to pay off.
I was in Paris last November to help announce some efforts to overcome these barriers. I’m happy to say that seven European countries participated and I’m excited about the innovation that your investments will unlock.
Today, I want to focus on two other areas where society tends to invest too little in research: health and agriculture for the poorest two billion.
The world has made good progress in recent years – thanks in part to the Millennium Development Goals, which unified the global community around the world’s most urgent problems.
Compared to 1990, under-five child mortality has been cut in half. And hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.
Yet, nearly 6 million children under the age of 5 still die every year – mostly in poor countries and mostly from preventable causes like malaria, pneumonia and extreme diarrhea.
Hundreds of millions more go through life sick and undernourished, limiting their productivity and sapping the limited resources of poor families and developing countries.
There is a huge need for new vaccines and drugs to reduce the burden of infectious diseases. And we have to increase innovation in agriculture to improve the yields of crops and livestock – the main source of nutrition and income for 70 percent of the world’s poor.
The problem in both health and agriculture is that markets respond to need – but only the needs of those who can pay. In both instances, the people with the greatest need can’t pay – so markets don’t respond to their needs.
To help address these market failures, our foundation invests more than $500 million a year in global health research. And we invest an additional $525 million in agricultural R&D.
But this is a fraction of what’s needed to create health equity in the developing world and ensure children have enough food to survive and thrive.
To meet the targets of the new Sustainable Development Goals, developing country leaders will have to take the lead in paying for the building blocks of a sustainable society – like better health, education, and social services. But we can accelerate their efforts significantly by investing more in the development of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs that strengthen health and agriculture.
This isn’t only a matter of equity. As the Ebola epidemic reminded us, the bacteria and viruses that trigger disease outbreaks don’t go through security checkpoints at national borders. Improving the health and well-being of the poor makes the world a safer and more secure place for people everywhere.
Understandably, these are tough financial times. Europe is facing enormous challenges. The unemployment average is above 10 percent in the EU member states. The continent is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
In that context, you may be asking:
- Can we afford this?
- And how can we make every Euro spent on research go as far as possible?
To answer the first question, a study a few years ago looked at the impact of European government funding for global health R&D. It showed that for every Euro invested by EU governments in global health R&D, an additional Euro was invested by the public, private, and philanthropic sectors in European laboratories, universities and companies.
These investments create thousands of high-value European jobs that contribute to the quality of European research and to the EU’s growth strategy.
The second question – how can we make our investments go as far as possible – is one we ask ourselves all the time. Because we want to make the most effective use of our research funding – the same as you do.
There are three things that drive our investments:
- We focus on the areas of greatest unmet need.
- We invest in research to spark product innovation with real impact.
- We involve the private sector to make markets work for the poor.
I’d like to share a few examples of how we are doing this in global health and development – often in partnership with European governments and the business sector.
Building a pipeline of products for global health starts with great ideas and early stage research.
In 2003, we established Grand Challenges in Global Health. The idea behind Grand Challenges is to focus attention on big scientific challenges that – if solved – could lead to major advances in preventing, treating, and curing diseases of the developing world. We evaluated a lot of proposals and identified the ones with the greatest potential for success and impact.
A few years later, we launched Grand Challenges Explorations. The idea with this was to encourage innovative ideas from anyone and make it easy for people to apply. Twice a year, we invite proposals on specific challenges. All people have to do is fill out a two-page application online. Grant recipients received $100,000 to pursue their ideas. And successful projects have the opportunity to receive additional funding.
We’ve funded some great European projects through Grand Challenges Explorations, like the work of Allen Saul, a researcher in Italy, who developed a vaccine for Shigella, a bacteria that’s a leading cause of severe diarrhea.
We also make equity investments in promising start-ups to stimulate private sector innovation. For example, we are backing a German biotech company called CureVac, which developed technology that has the potential to make vaccine development significantly faster and cheaper.
We aren’t the only ones who have seen CureVac’s potential. It was recognized in 2014 with the inaugural 2 million Euro European Commission Vaccine Prize – established to encourage European innovation in global health.
Another way we address the lack of commercial incentive to develop global health products is through a relatively new kind of organization called product development partnership. PDPs use public and philanthropic funds to bring together the scientific expertise of academic researchers and the product development know-how of the private sector.
For example, with funding from five European countries and our foundation, the Swiss-based Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) partnered with Novartis to develop a new anti-malarial drug that has already been distributed to 300 million children in 50 countries.
This PDP is also working with GlaxoSmithKline on Tafenoquine, the first potential single dose cure for malaria, a critical tool if we are finally to eradicate malaria.
A Dutch biotech company, SynCo Bio Partners, played a key role working with another PDP called PATH to develop a new low cost meningitis vaccine. Since its introduction in 2010, more than 217 million people have been immunized, resulting in thousands of lives saved.
We also support agricultural and livestock research because seven out of ten people in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers – yet productivity is so low that millions struggle to get enough to eat and earn a living.
One of the biggest problems they face is a chronic lack of access to quality seed. This is compounded by some of the toughest growing conditions – like drought, pests, and crop disease – which will only get worse with climate change.
Understanding their challenges helps explain why research and innovation is so important in agriculture. When productivity is low, there is often not enough quantity or quality of food available.
As a result, malnutrition runs rampant across a continent of farmers. It is the single biggest contributor to child mortality. And because malnutrition affects children's cognitive and physical development, it affects how much they can learn in school and their productivity as adults.
There is another reason why agricultural innovation is important. By 2050, global food demand is expected to increase by 60 percent. In Africa alone, there will be 200 million more people to feed.
So we have to make sure small farming families have the tools they need to feed themselves – and the rest of the world. There are a lot of things the world is already doing, like ensuring they have access to the right resources and knowledge to increase crop yields and get the best prices at market.
Helping farmers increase their productivity also requires the development of new seed varieties adapted to local conditions and tailored to the demands of a changing climate. Some of these new crops can be bred through traditional means, though to meet global food demand and the needs of farmers in developing countries we have to invest in a range of solutions.
Some of the most promising pathways include advanced genetic techniques to accelerate plant breeding and expand the range of important genetic traits. Rice farmers in India, for instance, are growing a new variety of flood-tolerant rice—nicknamed “scuba” rice—that can survive two weeks underwater.
If shifts in the weather pattern bring more flooding to their region, they are already prepared for it. Other rice varieties are being developed that can withstand drought, heat, cold, and soil problems like high salt contamination.
Just as European research is at the cutting edge of science in healthcare, we need greater participation by EU countries in agricultural innovation to meet the basic needs of poor farming families.
Livestock is another area where we are funding innovation because animal source foods like meat, eggs, and milk are great sources of protein and micronutrients to supplement the starchy crops that are the staple of many people’s. This nutrition is especially important to the health of women and young children. Livestock also is an important source of income and a sustainable supply of manure to fertilize crops.
The challenge in Africa is that most local livestock isn’t very productive, and animals imported from the developed world often struggle to survive or produce poorly when introduced into harsh tropical environment.
I’m excited about a grant we made recently to the Scottish Consortia, which brings together world-class experts in livestock science at the University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s Rural College with experts on the ground at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi.
Their goal is to adapt modern genetics and genomics technologies to help poor farmers in Africa increase the productivity of their animals and adapt to the effects of climate change.
Taken together, the advances in crop and livestock research will enable smallholder farmers to raise enough of the right kinds of foods to feed their families, earn a living, and improve food security for the world.
There is one other thing that’s important to accelerate innovation. It’s something Commissioner Moedas and the Dutch presidency of the EU Council have made a top priority: open science.
There are two aspects to open science. Collaboration . . . and transparency in the sharing of information. In a sense, they are two sides of the same coin. You need both to get the best results as quickly as possible.
One of the things that slows down innovation today is the fact that most papers published in scientific journals are not immediately available unless you subscribe to that publication. We have to move beyond this kind of proprietary approach so other scientists and health experts have access to the latest evidence to advance their research.
A little over a year ago, we adopted an open access policy that’s based on a simple principle: peer-reviewed published research funded in whole or in part by our foundation should be immediately available for unrestricted reuse by others, including any underlying data sets.
There are some great examples where scientists are collaborating. The Tuberculosis Drug Accelerator is bringing together the best scientific minds to solve tough problems. Tuberculosis kills 1.5 million people a year and there is growing resistance to the existing 60 year-old treatment regimen – so getting new drugs to market is crucial.
The TB Drug Accelerator is – in essence – a huge virtual lab where academic labs like the one at Dundee University in Scotland work cooperatively with European pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer, GSK, and Sanofi.
By collaborating on research – including sharing data and compounds – we can accelerate the development of a new TB drug regimen that will cure patients in a fraction of the time now required for treatment.
This kind of continuity – – from discovery research through clinical trials –is crucial to succeed in developing new vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics for global health.
The European Commission’s Innovative Medicines Initiative and the European and Developing Country Clinical Trial Partnership, provide important funding platforms for public-private sector collaboration to advance global health research.
To maximize their impact and achieve the greatest return, it’s important to prioritize and coordinate investments that accelerate the most promising and urgently-needed products.
For example, it would be great to see more examples like the IMI’s use of a rapid funding mechanism to fund R&D for an Ebola vaccine and diagnostics. This is the kind of strategic focus and action needed to speed up product development for the developing world.
We also hope EU countries will find a way to do even more in global health and agriculture. To achieve the targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals for maternal and child health and infectious disease, we will have to double R&D funding by 2020.
Europe has enormous talent, scientific firepower, and technological know-how that can be put to great use to create the world we all want. In the long run, what’s good for people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is good for the people of Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, and every other city and village in Europe.