How sharing knowledge saves lives

Trevor Mundel
President, Global Health Programme, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

Four-hundred years ago, the English philosopher and scientist, Francis Bacon, helped lay the groundwork for the scientific method. Since then, virtually every major breakthrough in science and medicine has stemmed from the principles of experimentation, observation, measurement, and analysis.

That belief in the power of information has influenced nearly every decision I have made as a physician and scientist. Good data enables research scientists to advance breakthroughs in life-saving drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics. It helps physicians make smart choices when administering care. Patients rely on accurate, accessible information to understand their own healthcare decisions. Policymakers and global health experts depend on facts and figures to decide where to invest limited resources with the greatest impact.

Given the Gates Foundation’s focus on improving health for the world’s poorest people, we put a high priority not only on the research necessary to deliver the next important drug or vaccine, but also on the collection and sharing of data so other scientists and health experts can benefit from this knowledge.

For example, we have been a longtime funder of the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME), which generates high-quality, up-to-date information on dozens of diseases worldwide, by country, age, and gender. This data equips government policymakers and others with crucial information that helps ensure health systems are aligned with evolving patterns of disease.

We also believe strongly in the value of post-market safety surveillance to ensure that new drugs and vaccines are safe and effective. By collecting data on new health solutions once they hit the market, doctors and public health officials can better understand the real-world benefits and risks.

But there is more we can and should do – particularly when it comes to sharing the research the foundation funds. That is why we are adopting an Open Access (OA) policy to enable the unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded by the foundation, including any underlying data sets. This change will take place over a two-year period, and effective January 1, 2017, will require that all publications resulting from foundation funding, and all data underlying the published research, be available immediately upon publication. This will enable other researchers to access the latest evidence and draw on it to advance their own research. The policy applies not only to global health and development, but to our work across the foundation, including our efforts to improve education in the U.S.

In adopting this policy, we are joining a growing open access movement that includes the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, and the Research Councils UK. Many prestigious peer-reviewed journals have also started adopting services that support open access.

By reinforcing the global health community’s commitment to sharing research data and information, we can accelerate the development of new solutions to tackle infectious diseases, cut maternal and child mortality, and reduce malnutrition in the world’s poorest places.

As Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” And in the poorest countries, that knowledge can be an extraordinarily powerful tool to save lives and create a better future.

Published in collaboration with Impatient Optimists

Author: Trevor Mundel, MD, is President of Global Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He leads the foundation’s efforts in research and development of health solutions, including vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics.

Image: Vaccines are placed on a tray inside the Taipei City Hospital October 1, 2010. REUTERS/Nicky Loh.

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