I had been nominated in the fall by then-President Barack Obama to serve as Director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, but almost on the day of my nomination a fight broke out in the U.S. Senate. Harry Reid abolished the filibuster on presidential appointments, and the ensuing battle, largely due to federal judge appointments, postponed a Senate vote on my confirmation for over a year. The Senate changed hands in November of 2014, so I would have to start the process all over again.
Fast forward. My wife and I were fast asleep in Paris that winter; my phone rang in the middle of the night. Jim Simons had called my cell phone—assuming I was in Boston and it was a reasonable hour—to ask me if I was interested in the position of president at the Science Philanthropy Alliance. I was interested and I accepted the position.
I had originally thought I would run the organization from Boston. However, David Baltimore (Nobelist and President Emeritus of Cal Tech) pointed me to a 2014 article from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, listing the top 50 philanthropists in the country. 16 of them were in California and a handful were in the New York tri-state region. Zero were in Boston. It was then I decided that a move was imminent.
In March of 2015, after relocating to Silicon Valley, I began my tenure as president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. For the first few months we were allowed to squat at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation as we gained our footing. By the end of the month, I had recruited Valerie Conn to be our Vice President. I knew that for someone to take this role, they needed the skills and abilities of a seasoned fundraiser, a role in which Valerie had previously excelled.
That May, Valerie and I found ourselves at a table with 15 billionaires or their representatives invited by Jim and Marilyn Simons of the Simons Foundation and Paul Joskow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. We had assumed the difficult part would be convincing these potential philanthropists that basic science was important to fund; this was not the case. They were all committed to basic science, they just felt they didn’t know how to do it.
Looking at the Alliance’s six foundation members, who together had 200 of years of experience in philanthropy, Valerie and I knew that we had the expertise to teach new philanthropists the best way to give to the basic sciences. Within a few months we had a strategy; I like to say the board hired me because they had a mission and no strategy, and they thought I might be able to come up with one. I am amazed that within a month, Valerie and I had done just that.
Later that year, Valerie and I attended a Giving Pledge learning session hosted by Jim and Marilyn Simons. We met with 30 giving pledgers or their representatives and have been advising them on strategic giving to basic science ever since; many are now members of the Alliance. Since 2015, we have grown our membership from six to 30.
As I step down as president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, I am acutely aware of the vital role of science philanthropy in society. With governmental budgets reducing their funding to the basic sciences, and more interest shown by both government and private industry in “results” in the form of innovations in the applied sciences, we must remind everyone that these innovations would be impossible without basic science research as the very foundation of what makes them possible. For example, CRISPR technology, now being applied to a large number of disease therapeutics, came out of curiosity-driven studies of how bacteria deal with attacks by viruses. The information revolution began with basic research in solid-state physics.
While the large pledges and gifts we have cultivated for the basic sciences has been thrilling, it is even more fulfilling to watch each new philanthropist moving along the path to gaining better understanding of the best and most effective practices in philanthropy. We witness their deep satisfaction from their support of basic science because their giving is effective.
I want to thank the board of directors, both the original and the current members of the board, who have been unbelievably supportive and responsive, and my staff for their service over the years in growing the Alliance, and their help in achieving our mission.