Saudi foundation fund aims to boost north-south science ties

New Community Jameel fund is part of a wider bid to tackle the global equity gap in science, says foundation director.

A fund launched by Community Jameel to invigorate the fight against infectious diseases signals a new focus from the Saudi-based foundation on promoting equity in science, its director said.

The Jameel Fund for Infectious Disease Research and Innovation will award grants of up to $65,000 to projects that could help quell the global threat posed by coronaviruses and other diseases, funding corresponding research at both Imperial College London and King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.

The two-year programme includes two funding rounds for each institute, with grants awarded and overseen by a joint committee of faculty members.

The fund, which aims to forge peer-to-peer ties between the institutes, reflects a new emphasis in Community Jameel’s grant-giving towards investing in north-south collaboration and creating opportunities for researchers in the global south, said director George Richards.

“This is something new for us,” he told Philanthropy Age. “As Community Jameel, we’ve very much decided to put a strong focus on this question of global equity in science and research, and in thinking how we can strengthen – particularly in the global south – research institutions.”

The structure of the Jameel Fund, a pilot for this new ethos, is designed to help build capacity among south-based scholars, a group underrepresented in scientific output and debate. Researchers in lower-income nations can face barriers in securing funding and global recognition, including less frequent citations of their work in western journals.

In healthcare, this also means fewer trials that take into account the specific factors at play in low-income countries, such as treatment availability, price, and other resource constraints.

“If we can create a platform for peer-to-peer collaboration, and integrate global south researchers and institutions into what are often more visible and better-funded research institutions of the global north, it has the potential to unlock all kinds of technologies,” Richards said.

“It’s an opportunity not only to support important research, but to do so in a way that empowers and provides more capacity to global south researchers.”

The Jameel Fund will focus particularly on late-stage projects with the potential for high impact. “It’s what we’d call catapult funding, in the sense that it's trying to drive forward that last push needed to get a solution out of the lab and into the field,” said Richards.

“Equity in health outcomes requires better health research and datasets from the global south.”

George Richards, director, Community Jameel.

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Men queue for Covid-19 vaccinations in Kolkata, India. Less than 0.5 per cent of doses have been administered in low-income nations to date. Credit: Getty Images.

Community Jameel, a philanthropic organisation funded by Saudi Arabia’s Jameel family, has invested substantially in healthcare, financing initiatives including the Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics at Imperial College London (J-IDEA) and the Jameel Clinic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which focuses on the development of AI technologies within healthcare.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic saw the foundation increase funding to both institutes to support their efforts to combat the virus.

This included a fund at Imperial College offering grants of up to £200,000 ($283,000) to support research into Covid-19, with awards made to projects exploring the automated production of custom-fit masks for frontline health workers, and a tool to predict the risk of deterioration among Covid-19 patients, among others.

“Both had huge roles to play, whether it was in discovering therapies or drugs that were applicable for treating Covid-19 or, in the Jameel Institute’s case, modelling the spread of the pandemic,” said Richards.

The effects of Covid-19 have exposed sharp disparities between poorer nations and their richer peers, worsening existing health inequalities and pushing poverty reduction gains into reverse.

To date, only 0.4 per cent of Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered in low-income nations, according to the World Health Organisation, compared to almost 40 per cent in Europe and North America.

This is despite a catastrophic resurgence of coronavirus in South Asia and South America, which has contributed to a dramatic shift in the burden of Covid-19 deaths to low and middle-income countries. In May, 52 per cent of new cases and 40 per cent of deaths occurred in poorer nations.

“Often we’re at tables where all the other foundations or government agencies are global north, so it’s vital that we are one of the voices speaking.”

George Richards, director, Community Jameel.

Though the discussion at Community Jameel to focus more deeply on equity in science predated the pandemic, the global conversation around vaccine equity and divergent access to healthcare made the shift feel particularly timely, said Richards.

“We have seen the disproportionate impact on communities in the global south, but even in the global north, minorities have experienced disproportionately adverse health outcomes,” he said; “things like oxygen monitors not working as effectively for black patients. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a lot of these inequities around race to light, and it’s changing the discourse as well."

The unprecedented speed with which Covid-19 vaccines were brought to market also highlights the benefits of cross-regional cooperation, he added.

“That's also another driver for greater collaboration, which in turn will provide better data and better experiences. Equity in health outcomes requires better health research and datasets from the global south.”

Community Jameel, which doesn’t disclose its annual giving, has become an increasingly prominent philanthropy in recent years, buoyed by its long-term investments in global institutes.

The organisation typically gives grants in the areas of health, education, climate, and in support of the use of evidence in policymaking, with a broader goal of seeding innovation and systems strengthening.

“We see our role as trying to optimise the conditions within which researchers and scientists can achieve breakthroughs,” said Richards. “We know that the likelihood of that, whether in health, education or climate science, is difficult, so there is this element of philanthropic risk capital.”

The foundation is marking 75 years of philanthropy from its founding family, a milestone that it has used to take stock of its core grant areas and approach.

This introspection, said Richards, has also underscored the role south-based philanthropies can play in the global conversation, to better represent the needs and interests of their communities.

“There is a growing need for these philanthropies to take on a global role. Often we’re at tables where all the other foundations or government agencies are global north, so it’s vital that we are one of the voices speaking,” he said.

“We’d like to see more. Organisations like ours will be key to bridging these gaps and creating peer-to-peer engagement - and hopefully to achieving a level of equivalency between north and south.” – PA