Stacking the Odds in Favor of Breakthroughs
Addressing complex global problems “requires seeing beyond borders, disciplines, and barriers to begin actively changing the way science is done,” write Regina E. Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel. As leaders of Wellcome Leap, funded by British philanthropy Wellcome, they are adapting an established model for innovation—that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—to achieve breakthroughs for human health. “Although DARPA was designed specifically to serve US strategic interests,” they write, “we are convinced that its model can be retooled to increase the number and pace of breakthroughs needed to address global challenges.”
At the center of this model are expert program managers, who are given wide latitude to fund different teams, often working in parallel or as parts of networks, to quickly produce results and drive momentum toward realizing ambitious goals. An outstanding example of this approach occurred while Dugan and Gabriel headed DARPA in 2010, when a program manager posed a “what if” question that seemed highly speculative at the time: “What if mRNA injected directly into the body to elicit vaccine-level antibody production could dramatically shrink the standard timeline for vaccine development?” This work became essential ten years later in the astonishingly rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Achieving more breakthroughs, they argue, “requires new approaches that go beyond national borders, beyond the boundaries of basic vs. applied research, beyond the life sciences vs. the physical sciences, and, perhaps most critically, beyond public vs. private funding.”
Read more about how dynamic networks of scientists and engineers can tackle global problems.