An initial set of grants, announced Wednesday, will go to Stanford and Tufts universities for the creation of new research centers and to individual scientists with unconventional approaches.
Billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen has announced a $100 million commitment over 10 years to fund scientific endeavors at the “frontiers of bioscience” that he describes as having major implications for humankind.
An initial set of grants, announced Wednesday, will go to Stanford and Tufts universities to create new research centers and to individual scientists with unconventional approaches to projects in tissue regeneration, antibiotic resistance, gene editing and brain circuitry.
Allen said he realized the biological sciences are at a critical point in history, with technology able to take the field in a more quantitative direction than ever before. New tools can manipulate DNA, next-generation microscopes measure and create images of the tiniest parts of living systems, and supercomputers are able to make sense of massive amounts of data.
“What I believe is that this is potentially a game-changer for our understanding of complex biological systems,” Allen said.
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He explained that his goal is to help facilitate a more interdisciplinary approach by giving scientists with out-of-the-box ideas the equipment, staff and connections to counterparts in math, engineering, physical sciences and computer science, so their work can reach its full potential.
The Microsoft co-founder, who is estimated to be worth $17.7 billion, has become one of the world’s most influential philanthropists in the sciences in recent years, and not just because of the huge sums he has given away.
Allen approaches the issues from the perspective of a computer scientist and entrepreneur. To him, questions about intelligence and possibly even life itself are potentially “solvable” through data, but only if scientists take big risks and aren’t afraid of failure.
The new effort will be housed within an entity called the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group and run by Tom Skalak, a longtime vice president of research at the University of Virginia whom Allen hand-picked to serve as executive director.
Skalak, whose own research is in bioengineering, said the group hopes to ramp up its grant-making quickly and aims to fund up to 10 partner centers and 25 scientists at any given time. Both young and experienced investigators will be included.
“What we are looking for is pioneers willing to head in the opposite direction than some of the established lines of inquiry,” Skalak said.
He said the research that went into the Frontiers Group took over a year and involved a listening tour and meetings with more than 1,000 researchers, university administrators, futurists and others.
At each meeting, Skalak said he told everyone that the goal was try to understand “dark matter of bioscience.”
“What are the undiscovered frontiers, and you would like to throw some light on?” Skalak asked.
While the total money involved represents only a tiny fraction of the roughly $15 billion the National Institutes of Health has given out in recent years for biomedical research, the individual Allen awards will be unusually large and unrestricted.
Each Frontiers Group partner university will receive up to $30 million and researchers $1 million to $1.5 million.
Allen and Skalak said the selection process will target research areas that may be too early, too radical or too “high risk” to make it through the government’s often conservative grant-making process.
Allen cited the work of Stanford’s Markus Covert, a professor in systems biology who will head the newly funded center there, as being particularly influential to his thinking.
Covert has become well-known for his mesmerizingly beautiful and detailed cell modeling, an area that overlaps with Allen’s own computer-science background.
“I came to think that, as it scales up from simple organisms to eventually mammalian organisms, it holds tremendous promise,” Allen noted.
Covert will use the Frontiers award to focus on macrophages, cells that scientists think are fundamental to understanding how the human immune system works.
Allen first jumped into science in a big way in 2003 with an initial $100 million investment to map the mouse brain.
That project was first met with skepticism by critics who questioned the science and raised questions about whether a businessman like Allen might have other motives.
But over time his approach has borne out and now serves as the basis of hundreds of other projects, as documented by citations in journal articles.
In 2014, Allen Institute for Brain Science researchers achieved an unusual distinction: being selected twice to be featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Nature.