The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is shining a light on toilets and the waste that is supposed to go in them in the sixth round of its grand challenges project.
The foundation on Thursday announced 88 new $100,000, five-year grants for unusual research, including a number in a new category for the program: sanitation. It's a topic that doesn't get a lot of attention — financially or otherwise — from charitable foundations, said one of the recipients of the grants just announced.
"Traditionally, there has been dramatically less money to work on sanitation and safe drinking water issues," said Kara Nelson, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "When it comes down to it, it's kind of gross. People don't get excited to work on it."
But she and a number of other researchers are pretty excited to explore the topic with money from the Gates Foundation.
"The role that the Gates Foundation can play is going to be transformational," Nelson said.
Her project focuses on making human waste less dangerous to other humans who come in contact with it, either because they are cleaning latrines, transporting waste receptacles or walking along a ditch, pit or canal containing human waste.
In countries where human waste isn't treated in a municipal sewer system, a larger percentage of people suffer from diarrheal diseases, which are the second-leading cause of childhood deaths around the world, according to the Gates Foundation. The pathogens associated with human waste also make the bodies of people who live in those areas less able to accept some medical treatments or vaccines.
Nelson has a number of ideas for making this toxic sludge safer by killing the pathogens where the waste is produced, including some ideas for enhancing the ammonia that naturally exists in human waste.
"The whole motivation is to take this material and make it safe. It's not going to be nicer. It's still going to be gross," she added.
Among the other projects getting a $100,000 grant is a Harvard University project to harness dirt to charge cell phones in rural Africa and one from the University of California, San Francisco to create a smart diaphragm for detecting preterm labor. A number of other projects focus on improving the efficiency of polio vaccines, a special focus on this round of grants.
Researchers applying for the sixth round of grants were asked to think about polio, sanitation, HIV infection, cell phone applications and new technologies for improving the health of mothers and newborns.
The 88 projects announced Thursday were selected from more than 2,500 proposals from about 100 countries, said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery at the foundation. As of this announcement, the foundation has given money to 500 researchers. Five of those projects have moved to the next level of development and the foundation has given them more money. About 10 more second stage grant challenges grants will be announced soon, Wilson said.
Three and a half years into this project, the foundation is pleased with how many applicants it is getting and how widespread geographically the researchers are, but Wilson said they won't know for a while if the project has really been a success.
"In most of the topic areas, we won't be able to measure the true value of this program for probably more than a decade," he said.
Applications for the next round of grants will be accepted online through May 19. Applicants come from a wide variety of disciplines: computer science to health and medical research and entrepreneurs. Two new topics have been added to the seventh round: infant and child nutrition, as well as applying synthetic biology to global health challenges.
The Gates Foundation was created in 2000 by the Microsoft Corp. chairman and his wife.