The global health bug bit Lisa Cohen in 2001. She was a producer at KING5-TV in Seattle at the time, and along with anchorwoman Jean Enerson, she traveled through Africa for two weeks in a delegation with Patty Stonesifer, who was then running the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“That trip inspired me to get me to get involved with global health,” Cohen says. “I was enthralled with the things PATH and the Gates Foundation were doing. And I was appalled that I didn’t know anything about it.”
Cohen told me this little story this week in a conference room at PATH, the Seattle-based nonprofit organization where she now has an office. She’s the founding director of the Washington Global Health Alliance, a group that aims to strengthen Seattle’s claim as one of the world hubs of global health research and strategic thinking—up there with Geneva, Switzerland, home of the World Health Organization.
Everyone in Seattle knows the Gates Foundation is the world’s biggest charitable organization, and it has lofty goals of tackling the biggest scourges of humanity, like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. What fewer people realize is how much research horsepower the region built up even before the foundation arrived, and how much potential there is to strengthen the region by making the research community even more tight-knit, Cohen says.
Momentum for this idea got rolling in the fall of 2006. Cohen had left the TV news business for good, realizing the economics of the business were steering it away from her interest in meaty topics like global health. She had a connection with Gov. Chris Gregoire through serving as a communications adviser in the 2004 election. Two years later, Cohen helped set the agenda for a meeting of all the big guns in the region’s global health scene and the Governor. The meeting drew Bill Gates Sr. to help represent his son’s foundation; PATH president Chris Elias, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center director Lee Hartwell, King Holmes of the University of Washington’s Global Health department, Ken Stuart of the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, as well as provosts from the UW and Washington State University.
The main thrust of the meeting was that Washington state could make a bigger impact if all these hard-driving players lifted their noses from the grindstone once a while to look around at what each other is doing. At a minimum, they could avoid redundancy in their work, and at best, they could form beneficial partnerships to help develop, say, new vaccines. “The Governor was fabulous, and on board right away,” Cohen says. “The first thing she saidwas to call for an economic impact study of global health in the state.”
OK, it’s important to take this with a grain of salt, because studies like these are often used as sales material to pump up public support for an expensive, risky use of taxpayer dollars. That said, the study, by University of Washington geography professor William Beyers, dug up some interesting data. More than 3,600 people in the state make a living through global health research and delivery, at an average annual salary of $77,557, based on data from 2005. An estimated $4.1 billion of state business activity is generated by global health, although that number is inflated with a loose definition of “global health” that includes health services to Washington residents of foreign descent or who are members of sovereign Indian tribes.
Still, since billionaire investor Warren Buffett agreed in 2006 to pool his fortune with the Gates Foundation, global health is undeniably a big deal in town and here to stay. Buffett has been giving his fortune in annualinstallments worth more than $1.6 billion a year ever since, and the foundation reported it had $38.8 billion in assets at the end of 2007.
“The need became clear for an organization that could bring these institutions together to strengthen and build the global health community,” says Scott Jackson, PATH’s vice president of external relations, in an e-mail.
So the alliance was born. So far, it’s just Cohen working there full-time, with a part-time assistant, housed at PATH’s offices in Ballard. The organization is getting established by collecting $7,500 executive membership fees, and $3,500 from sponsoring members who are interested in supporting it, but aren’t as closely involved as the mainstays. The group has also gotten $1.25 million from the Gates Foundation, and is vying for another 5-year, multi-million dollar grant from the foundation that would cement its place in the community.
The main goals, Cohen says, start with stimulating more research. The alliance is applying to the Gates Foundation to set up a grantmaking plan, which would enable it to dole out 14 to 16 grants of $75,000 each. The idea would be to get researchers at multiple institutions around the state to pool their brains and resources around big challenges, a little like how the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund does it, Cohen says.
She also hopes to bring researchers together at regular events, like one this month on new vaccines in development, hosted at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. That event, following one we organized last month, has drawn leading researchers in the region, including Lawrence Corey of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Stefan Kappe of SBRI, to talk about the latest stuff cooking in the lab. At least once a quarter, the alliance gathers many of the same leaders of institutions that met with the Governor, to talk about what they are doing and how they can work together, Cohen says.
Another piece of the plan is marketing and advocacy for Seattle as a global health hotspot. The best example of this will happen this spring, behind closed doors, when Cohen plans to put together a high-profile delegation to make a pitch for federal support at the U.S. Senate’s Democratic Caucus. This invite came last October from Sen. Patty Murray, during a panel discussion Cohen moderated at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s regional leadership summit.
While bringing lawmakers up to speed on the issues, the alliance also has its eyes on educating young people in the region. The alliance has gotten a $1 million, 3-year grant from the Gates Foundation to develop a curriculum for 11th graders to get exposed to the sociology, economics, and research career opportunities to focus on health in the developing world.
It’s still the early days for the alliance, since Cohen didn’t even switch to full-time until last September. But judging from the amount of interest in the subject in the community at the Chamber’s conference, it’s going to take on a higher profile in the community in the years to come.
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