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Bonds Would Boost Research, Say Scientists

Sarah C.P. Williams

As federal research grants become harder to obtain, two doctors suggest that research bonds could boost basic biomedical funding.

The time has come to develop new infrastructures for funding basic research in the United States, say two Johns Hopkins School of Medicine doctors. And the infrastructure that holds the most hope, in their opinion, is research bonds.

“This is a time to be maximally creative,” said Hamilton Moses, one of the two authors of a commentary that is slated to be published in the December 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. “We can learn from what has been learned in other countries, and also learn from the lessons of how roads and bridges and football stadiums are built.”

Two doctors suggest that research bonds could boost basic biomedical funding. Source: Library of Congress

Funding for first-time research grant applications by NIH has been on the decline for more than a decade. Source: NIH Data Book online

As a percentage of total gross domestic product, and as a percentage of the total federal budget, research funding in the US—as well as Europe—has dropped over the past decades, now lagging behind China, South Korea, and India.

Moses, who has held administrative positions as well as clinical ones, worked as a management consultant in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe. He began paying attention to what types of research funding had worked in other countries. Research-focused pension funds in Australia caught his attention. “This is an area where, in my view, the US has been a bit parochial in the way that we’ve funded research,” he said.

In 2001, Moses and another collaborator first proposed the idea of research being combined into pools of equity. The polls could be turned into bonds, and their equity would generate income to allow bond amortization.

The pools of intellectual property used to create bonds could be any combination of research. Some might be focused on a particular state—one could invest in Massachusetts research, for example. Others might be regional—a Delaware-New Jersey-Pennsylvania pharmaceutical pool. And some could relate to a specific research topic—a cancer or autism bond. Others could be as small as a bond for a single university system’s research.

While Moses foresees some individuals taking an interest in these bonds as an investment device, the real power would most likely come from small foundations and companies, he said. Using these bonds, such organizations could funnel money directly toward basic research to invigorate the sector. “Right now, pharmaceutical companies just can’t support the amount of early stage research they want,” said Moses. “And small foundations with an interest in one disease have a hard time making an impact.”

In the past, critics of the plan have argued that such infrastructures would further weaken the National Institutes of Health and create a hostile environment for such federal agencies. But with budget sequestration looming, such concerns have begun to dampen, said Moses. And he points to successful examples in Europe: a Malaria patent pool, for example, that has provided funding to researchers.

If research bonds ever came to be in the US, experts would have to convene to run them. For now, Moses hopes that researchers can begin discussing the idea of research bonds. In the near future, he hopes a test pool could study whether the idea pans out.


  1. Moses, H., and E.R. Dorsey. Biomedical research in an age of austerity. 2012. JAMA. Published online ahead of print November 26, 2012.

Keywords:  research funding