That’s the advice of critics who say that big budgets and big companies in the biosciences actually discourage creativity and risk taking in the development of successful drugs and other products. For proof, they point out that while total R&D investment in the life sciences has approached $1 trillion since 2010 – twice what was spent in the 1990s – the number of FDA-approved drugs has dropped from 56 in 1996 to only 23 in 2010.
They counsel researchers to “get small” and give the example of the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), which was created in the late 1950s as an alternative to massive defense spending. DARPA doesn’t have peer review, a labyrinth of committees and regulatory tomes. Researchers receive relatively small pots of money and have almost total autonomy to pursue their research. Today’s modern internet was one of the ideas hatched at DARPA, among other things.
One might make the same argument in philanthropy. It’s not so much that funders ought to “get small” as it is to “right-size” their organization structures and projects to encourage maximum adaptability and creative response to emerging conditions. Too often the need for organizational accountability and control trumps the flexibility to take advantage of surprising developments in the field. It would be interesting to take one of the mega-foundations and divide it up into a series of smaller, more autonomous units and see the results.