The TED organization, whose slick online video presentations have helped thousands of scientists and other thinkers reach huge audiences and potential financial backers, has jumped into the funding business itself. Last week, TED’s Audacious Project announced its second cohort of grantees, who will each receive tens of millions of dollars from donors. Among them are teams working to design improved proteins, eradicate parasitic diseases, and develop plants that counter global warming.
David Johnson, a sociologist who studies trends in scientific funding at the University of Nevada in Reno, compares TED’s funding strategy to stock market investing. “In investment portfolio terms, federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are like [an] index fund with diversified investment in science [whereas] Audacious is taking it to an extreme by making major investments in a few blue-chip scientific stocks.”
This second funding round began when the organization put out a call for proposals, asking for just a few hundred words describing an idea and its scope. It received about 1500 initial applications. Officials within TED worked with a philanthropic consultancy called the Bridgespan Group in Boston to narrow that batch to a short list.
The reviewers for these proposals are not typically experts in the relevant fields, explains Audacious Project Executive Director Anna Verghese in New York City. Instead, they look at a team’s record of success, the idea’s potential for large-scale global impact, its sustainability, and its ability to attract philanthropy, she says. A consultant then works with each short listed project to make it more attractive to philanthropists. Each team ultimately filmed a video presentation for a panel of donors assembled by TED. Whenever donors commit to a project, they and TED set up milestones and reporting requirements and expected outcomes.
Last year, the Audacious Project gave $35 million for the study of life in the mesopelagic ocean layer, $105 million to combat the widespread eye infection trachoma, and an undisclosed amount of money to a methane-monitoring satellite effort. This year, eight projects won funding; three had a strong science/research bent.
Biochemist David Baker’s team at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle earned $45 million to support its efforts to synthesize designer proteins, which could lead to new drugs and vaccines, as well as for novel materials for producing and storing energy.
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, won $35 million to attempt to bioengineer crop plants that can sequester between 20% and 46% more carbon dioxide than usual, in bigger, deeper root systems and the spongy compound suberin.
The END Fund, headquartered in New York City, received $50 million for its work partnering with pharmaceutical companies and international governments and aid agencies to purchase and distribute existing drugs to combat tropical diseases caused by parasitic worms. It will also push for new drug development.
Baker says this model for funding research isn’t generally aimed at developing totally new research ideas, but rather to scaling up existing, proven ones. “It’s really geared toward people who have something they’re excited about, that already exists, and they have a bigger vision for it,” he says.
The Audacious Project’s funding system “has its pros and cons,” says Rick McCullough, vice provost for research at Harvard University. “Especially for these NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and nonprofits, it’s hard to piece together these things with a million here and a million there, so this looks like a great thing for them.” But McCullough worries the system is not right for academic science. Existing federal funding agencies and foundations are better equipped to vet the science behind such proposals, he says. “It’s a kind of hubris for [TED] to say, ‘We know better how to pick projects than the funding agencies and foundations.’”
Johnson disagrees. Even with traditional funding, he says, “Sometimes funds do not go to the best project proposals. To the extent that TED does a good job of disseminating information about the problems and the results of the research … everyone in the scientific enterprise [benefits].”