Julie Block at the National Eczema Association recently announced that the NEA offers research grants of $10-25k/year. I am all for supporting eczema research, both basic investigations into the causes of eczema and applied projects to help treat it. That’s why, as a patient and parent, although I applaud the NEA’s program--who else is doing this for us?--but I think it’s way too small. Someone needs to give it a boost.
Now, I know that the NEA’s primary purpose is patient support, and I know that sometimes these tiny grants can be used as leverage on bigger grant applications. Martin Steinhoff, I think, told me that NIH “study groups” that decide who gets federal money give great weight to grants from patient advocacy groups like NEA. They're a seal of approval.
Nevertheless, let me give a bit of perspective. Modern biology is expensive. The salary alone of a single graduate student is $50k/yr (counting overhead). The last time I looked at NIH research grants, the median grant was $250k. And, from what I’ve seen, the budget for a single lab at the University of California is at least $1M/year. Bigger labs, $2.5M/yr, a hundred times as much as an NEA grant.
Plus, here’s another issue: I don’t think leading scientists are going to bother applying for $10-25k grants. They’re not worth the time of a Kevan Shokat or a Carolyn Bertozzi: an innovator who could make radical discoveries that would transform a research field.
So we need to think bigger. How can the NEA get more money for its grant programs? We can’t rely on the NIH alone to fund eczema research. They don’t even include eczema as a condition worth listing in their public accounts.
The NEA is not going to get money from the government. And at their current annual subscription fee, they’re not going to get it from you or me. They might get it from one or more wealthy philanthropists who either themselves suffer from eczema or who have close family members who do.
And these philanthropists are going to want to know that they are not throwing their money away, giving it to scientists to buy expensive toys. They are going to want to know there is good management in place, with a plan that includes milestones. Would we be ready to convince such a philanthropist that we merit their money?
Or, possibly, someone would be interested in offering a prize, like an X Prize (an Ecz Prize?) of a million dollars or more for the first research group to, say, provide an effective pH-balanced filaggrin-based scalp moisturizer. Big prizes, so the scuttlebutt goes, offer a factor of ten leverage. You pay a prize of $1 million, but you get $10 million worth of research done by competing groups. Plus, a prize draws attention to a challenge.
The question is: what goal would a prize be offered for? Eczema is such a complex problem, and we’re far from a complete understanding of it. So what realistic, inspirational goals could a prize committee set? I’d be happy to learn of parallels where this approach has worked for other conditions.