Shaping the Agenda of a Grand Challenge: Institutional Mediation of Priorities in Avian Influenza Research

Matthew L. Wallace and Ismael Rafols

Since outbreaks in 2003, avian influenza has received a considerable amount of funding and become a controversial science policy issue in various respects. Like in many so-called “grand challenges”, a variety of perspectives have emerged over how to “tackle” avian influenza and public voices have expressed concern over how research funds are being allocated. In this article we inquire into the priorities of avian influenza research. We use qualitative and quantitative data to examine the relations between societal demands for public science and the existing “research landscape”. Interviews of a cross-section of stakeholders revealed a diversity of perspectives on existing research and its desired outcomes, and a generalized difficulty to explicitly connect the two. We also observed a lack of a common understanding of priorities for conducting and applying research. Rather than well-defined research agendas, we found that most public avian influenza research is shaped by three institutional contexts: pharmaceutical industry priorities, publishing and public research funding pressures, and the mandates of international and national science-based policy or public health organizations. Our results are significant for informing not only resource allocation issues, but also a broad perspective of research governance that explicitly takes into account underlying incentive structures when defining priorities.