Let's get all the snickering out of the way first: yes, Bill Gates is funding condom research. But the reasoning behind the new initiative is more important than improving awkward experiences by the glow of the dashboard light: this is about saving lives and enhancing quality of life in developing nations.
First off, it's not just Bill Gates that's funding the research: the proposed initial funding of $100,000 is being provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a well-established record of seeking solutions for health issues that many of us in Western nations take for granted.
Condoms are one such issue in developing nations, where they are needed to control transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Their success as a birth control method, which can be a hot button issue in some cultures, is nonetheless undisputed.
Cultural issues aside, one of the perceived problems (from the male perspective) is "that condoms decrease pleasure as compared to no condom, creating a trade-off that many men find unacceptable, particularly given that the decisions about use must be made just prior to intercourse," according to the Grand Challenges in Global Health announcement.
"Likewise, female condoms can be an effective method for prevention of unplanned pregnancy or HIV infection, but suffer from some of the same liabilities as male condoms, require proper insertion training and are substantially more expensive than their male counterparts," the program added.
To help solve the problem, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is offering $100,000 in initial funding (and up to $1 million) for anyone who can come up with the "next generation condom."
"We are looking for a Next Generation Condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use. Additional concepts that might increase uptake include attributes that increase ease-of-use for male and female condoms, for example better packaging or designs that are easier to properly apply. In addition, attributes that address and overcome cultural barriers are also desired," according to the Challenge.
Issues like this, which carry various ranges of cultural taboos, depending on your stance, are nothing new for the Foundation. Last August, the Foundation announced the winners of its $100,000 prize to come up with a better toilet. The lack of proper sanitation facilities is a huge problem for billions, and coming up with a cheap and effective means of waste disposal was important enough to weather the inevitable jokes.
There is little doubt that reactions to this latest health initiative will contain similar jokes, because birth control is outside a lot of people's comfort zones. But there are also serious cultural and theological issues to keep in mind as well, more so than the sanitation program ever started. It will be interesting to see if there can really be a solution that can beat this challenge.