Five years ago, the world's largest funders and advocates of AIDS vaccine research launched the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise to better coordinate the field, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. But the somewhat amorphous organization remained without an executive director. Today, the Enterprise announced that Alan Bernstein, who for the past 7 years has headed the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), will take the helm.
The Enterprise is the brainchild of leading AIDS researchers, who first proposed the idea in a 2003 Science Policy Forum. Members of the loosely aligned association include the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which until now has supplied a secretariat in Seattle, Washington, to run the effort). A strategic plan crafted in 2004 spelled out critical unanswered scientific questions and described how networks of researchers could work together, with standardized laboratory tests, to address them. Both NIH and the Gates Foundation subsequently invested nearly $600 million in these consortia.
The Enterprise's first attempt at an executive director fell through. Merck's head honcho for vaccines, Adel Mahmoud, was supposed to fill the slot last year, but a contract dispute scuttled the deal (ScienceNOW, 15 August 2006).
Bernstein, whose own research has focused on cancer and blood-cell development, is quick to acknowledge that he has done little HIV research and none whatsoever on vaccines. But he notes that he built CIHR--Canada's version of NIH--from the ground up. "I really know how to bring scientists together," he says. And Bernstein suggests that his outsider perspective may provide this failure-weary field with precisely the boost it needs. "If I can do nothing else but create a breath of fresh air and perhaps attract other people to the field, and in particular young people, I will have succeeded."
William Snow, an AIDS advocate who is on the Enterprise coordinating committee, is happy to have Bernstein on board. "He is very strong in areas needed by the field and the Enterprise plan: substantial scientific credibility, open-mindedness, no conflicts of interest, great political skills, and an excellent record with new organizations." Bernstein "is the perfect choice," adds Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS. "He combines scientific credibility with leadership and political acumen."
The Enterprise will make its home in New York City, and Bernstein plans to set up shop in January. Although the organization won't provide him with money to fund the research agenda, Bernstein says his job is to "make sure conversations are taking place" among AIDS vaccine researchers and to "create an atmosphere of cooperation and synergy." As for how he will convince competing labs to work together without the carrot and stick that funding provides, Bernstein says, "Scientists and funders are motivated by two things: self-interest and [the desire] to make a positive difference. I understand both of those things."