Sue Merrilees is a senior advisor at the Science Philanthropy Alliance. This is the second post in an ongoing blog series. Read Part I and Part III.
When we left Ross Brown at the end of Part I, he had found a funding partner with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Fellowship Program and was “embedded” with its operation to learn about its workings first-hand. To gather more information, he visited some west coast universities so he could float the “restless minds” program concept, suggested by Science Philanthropy Alliance president Marc Kastner, along with some other ideas. Although “institution agnostic,” Ross felt strongly that research universities were the only places that could execute his vision, so I helped arrange meetings for him in the fall of 2018. And while he didn’t say as much, I’m sure he also wanted to test those institutions for compatibility as future partners, to see if the alignment felt right. He met with faculty leaders at Stanford, UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego and made a few gifts along the way, including endowing a chemistry fellowship at UC-Berkeley in his father’s name.
More Expert Feedback
In November, the Alliance had a members’ meeting in Palo Alto and we invited Ross to attend, as he had expressed interest in joining the Alliance. During breaks and at lunch, Ross asked some members and consultant Bob Birgeneau, former Chancellor of UC-Berkeley, their impressions of Marc’s program idea. Without preparation or prompting from Marc, all agreed that mid-career researchers were the group most in need of financial assistance. Once convinced of Bob’s (and of the others’) neutrality, Ross was also impressed enough by the former’s depth of experience to ask for a consultation after both had returned home. Ross had also appreciated conversing with Alliance board member Adam Falk and now had some more specific questions given what he’d learned from his fall university visits. He was aware that Adam, now president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, had recently been on the other side of the desk as president of Williams College, and Ross wanted to inquire about negotiating effectively with universities on issues such as indirect costs and equipment needs.
While Ross was in town, Marc suggested he return to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to meet with its president (and Alliance board member) Harvey Fineberg and Robert Kirshner, head of the science program. Ross also stopped by to update Ken Moore on his progress. I remarked that Ken must have been impressed with how far he’d come in such a short time, and Ross told me that was exactly Ken’s observation. I assured him the praise was well-deserved.
In the spring of 2019, Ross decided to go on an east coast university swing as well, so we helped arrange meetings as he directed, including ones to Penn, Cornell, Columbia, and MIT, and prepared each institution so that the visit was as productive as possible. Ross de-briefed with Marc and me afterwards, noting “I’m getting better at knowing what questions to ask.” In each visit, he continued to inquire, “What would you do in my shoes?” We were not surprised to hear that a few of the universities responded by saying, “Why not give it to us?” Marc commented wryly, “The development office is just doing their job.”
A Member of the Club
In April, Ross stopped by our offices after a meeting at the Packard Foundation and told Marc that he felt it was finally time “to become a member of the club” and asked for an official associate membership invitation. That June, the Ross M. Brown Family Foundation became an associate member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Ever the gentleman, Ross had expressed his gratitude for our assistance at every encounter, and again he told me how enormously grateful he was to the Alliance, and how much we’d accelerated his decision-making.
Over the months of working together, Ross and I had realized we were both opera buffs and that by coincidence, would be attending the same performance in Santa Fe that July. It gave me the opportunity to meet his wife Sherron who had gone on some of his university information gathering trips. Although Sherron was happy to leave the details of the foundation’s working to Ross, since she was a trustee, I wanted to encourage her to feel comfortable enough to engage with its work. Countless times I’ve witnessed philanthropy bring enormous joy and meaning to a donor’s life, so I hoped she would experience its satisfactions along with her husband.
The Big Reveal
The Packard Foundation’s advisory panel meets annually during the first week in September to make their final fellow selection. Marc and I were eager to meet with Ross shortly after the selection as Ross had told us that he had set that month as the deadline for the big decision about his own philanthropy. When he and Sherron arrived, Ross asked to speak to Marc alone for a few minutes, so I greeted her and chatted in our lobby and established she was more comfortable with her book than in the meeting. Once I got into Marc’s office, I could tell from his smile what the news was and Ross confirmed it by announcing, “I’ve decided to fund Marc’s plan—the restless minds.” He went on to tell us what a useful experience it had been at the Packard Foundation to witness the inner workings of the fellows’ selection process up close, especially the final deliberations. He admired the lean staffing of the Packard Fellows program, noting that it could operate with a small program staff in partnership with the legal, financial, and communications staff of the foundation. He planned to emulate the structure; program advisor Lynn Orr and program manager Xiao-Wei Wang were more than happy to share their knowledge as Ross launched his own program. Ross shared a number of decisions he’d made about how he wanted his program administered. He planned to launch in 2020 and build slowly by initially supporting at least two fellows in the first year of its existence, increasing to eight at full operation, which would be selected annually. A science advisory board of six would be chaired by Marc. The program would have a limited lifespan; by the end of its existence, Ross will have contributed nearly half a billion dollars to basic research.
The Importance of Basic Science
To celebrate the decision, we had lunch at the little bistro across the street with Ross and Sherron and he expanded further about his belief in the importance of basic science and on the logic underlying some of his decisions. Like David Packard, he felt his own business had benefited from science discoveries made many years earlier and, again like David, he wanted to create the conditions for future breakthroughs. Ross reiterated how strongly he felt about supporting curiosity-driven science, albeit science that might have practical applications at some point. While Ross understood and valued the longer-term payoff behind many basic science discoveries, he chose to invest his money so that it made an impact in generations, not centuries. This latter belief also drove his preference for certain fields, such as chemistry and physics, and not others, such as astronomy. With his goal of encouraging and supporting a distinctive kind of thinking within those fields, “finding the mavericks,” would be his next big challenge.
One journey might have ended for Ross Brown, but another was just beginning.
Strong local reporting on the status of Puget Sound’s killer whales, the degradation of soils in a region of France, air quality in Utah, and the impact of an Idaho nuclear research facility are among the winning entries for the 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
New leaders will build on the momentum of the first five years
Palo Alto, Calif. – Today, the Science Philanthropy Alliance announced that effective January 1, 2020, the current executive director, Valerie Conn, will assume the role of president and Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D., president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, will become board chair.
Marc Kastner, who joined the Alliance as its first president in 2015, is retiring from his role but will remain part of the organization as a consultant, supporting the Alliance’s advising work. The current board chair, Robert Conn, president and chief executive officer of The Kavli Foundation, will complete five years as chair at the end of the year and will remain on the board.
In recent years, the Alliance has established itself as a leading resource for philanthropists interested in funding basic science in the most impactful ways possible. Since 2016, by advising philanthropists and foundations that are beginning or expanding their funding of basic scientific research, the organization estimates it has influenced more than $1 billion in new funding to basic science.
Valerie Conn joined the Alliance in 2015 and helped to shape the vision and strategy of the organization which has concentrated on advising new philanthropists.
“Valerie has been instrumental in developing the Alliance’s strategy to meet its mission of increasing philanthropic support for basic research in the natural sciences,” said Marc Kastner, outgoing president of the Alliance. “She has a deep understanding of the challenges faced by philanthropists who want to support science and has led our staff in developing the resources philanthropists need to overcome these challenges. This has led to a remarkable growth in philanthropic support for basic science, and I know that as president she will continue to build on the momentum the Alliance has created in its first five years.”
Prior to joining the Alliance, Valerie was vice president of strategy for the B612 Foundation where she worked with astronauts and scientists on an asteroid survey. From 2004 to 2013, she served as a development officer at the University of Chicago, leading teams in the Physical Sciences Division, as well as university strategic initiatives, including developing and implementing the strategy for partnership development, resource development, marketing for the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the Computation Institute fundraising initiatives.
“I am thrilled to be assuming the role of president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance as we enter a new era of growth for private funding to basic science,” said Alliance president-elect Valerie Conn. “Scientific research is at a critical juncture, and the role of philanthropy is rising in importance as a catalyst to fund breakthroughs that can improve the lives of billions of people. I look forward to building on the Alliance’s work and reputation as the number one trusted knowledge resource to philanthropists on basic science research funding.”
Founded in 2013 with just six members, the organization now boasts 30 funders committed to supporting basic scientific research in pursuit of discoveries that advance our knowledge of the world. Foundations and individuals who join the Alliance understand the need for long-term investments in fundamental science in order to answer the questions, solve the problems, and increase the knowledge of our natural world.
“Marc Kastner, as the first president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, and Valerie Conn, as the first strategic leadership hire, have together built an extraordinary organization. It is only fitting that Valerie now steps in as the next Alliance president and continues the tremendous work they have done,” said outgoing Alliance chair Robert Conn. “It has been a privilege to work with them as chair of the board, and after five years, it is important to rotate in a membership organization. Harvey Fineberg was the unanimous choice as the next chair. He and Valerie will provide high-quality leadership as the organization moves into the next stage of growth and maturation.”
Fineberg is president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a $6.8 billion foundation which fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, improvements in patient care and preservation of the special character of the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to joining the foundation, he served as president of the U.S. Institute of Medicine (now National Academy of Medicine), provost of Harvard University, and dean of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. His academic career focused on health policy, medical decision-making and research on global health, the assessment of medical technology, vaccines, and the dissemination of medical innovations.
“Under the leadership of Bob Conn and Marc Kastner, the organization has blossomed from a seed of an idea into a strong organization,” said incoming board chair, Harvey Fineberg. “I look forward to working with the board and Valerie to continue to advance scientific research through philanthropy.”
About the Science Philanthropy Alliance
Established in 2013, the Science Philanthropy Alliance provides advice and learning opportunities for individual philanthropists and foundation staffs on how to support basic research most effectively. Funded by 30 member organizations, its mission is to increase private funding for basic science in the U.S. and U.K.
The Science Philanthropy Alliance announced that the John Templeton Foundation has joined the Alliance as a benefactor.
Founded by the late investor Sir John Templeton, the John Templeton Foundation focuses on supporting research and dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The foundation’s funding areas include the natural sciences, human sciences, character virtue development, and public engagement. Areas of support have spanned research in fundamental physics, epigenetics, and the science of curiosity, gratitude, and awe.
“The John Templeton Foundation has been a significant supporter of basic scientific research for three decades,” said Valerie Conn, executive director of the Alliance. “We are excited to welcome them to our community of basic science funders and look forward to working with them to increase private funding for basic scientific research.”
In May 2018, a gentleman named Ross Brown rang the offices of the Science Philanthropy Alliance in need of assistance. At age 83, he had finally retired, sold his company for almost half a billion dollars, and wanted to donate most of the proceeds to science. However, as he admitted to me and president Marc Kastner in that first call, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!” He had come to the right place.
Two universities and Ken Moore of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation had recommended Ross reach out to the Alliance. And while Ross was impressed with what the Moore Foundation accomplishes with its 90+ employees, he knew such a structure wasn’t for him. “Time and inclination are against me,” he told us. “I felt responsible to my employees for so many years. I don’t want that burden again.”
Ross was not entirely new to philanthropy. He had already established a foundation and made some six (and a seven)-figure gifts. However, he would describe even these larger gifts as reactive. He’d funded things like a building named after his brother who had died in a plane crash and graduate fellowships in his father’s honor, the latter because he’d been asked and had once personally experienced the need. Ross knew he wouldn’t live forever, and he wanted the money he’d worked so hard to accumulate to have a positive impact. But exactly what kind of impact, he wasn’t sure. And he did not know how to ensure his wishes continued to be carried out once he was gone.
As Individual as the Individual
At the Alliance, the assistance we offer our advisees is highly personalized. We begin the advising process with a series of questions appropriate to the advisee’s stage of philanthropy. In this case, exploration. In our first meeting with Ross, we had a conversation about attitudes toward money and giving with a focus on past experiences, most importantly, what gifts had been most satisfying and why? Least satisfying and why? It’s an iterative process, very much a back-and-forth, and at the end of the first two sessions, we had emerged with the beginnings of his philanthropic road map. Although Ross couldn’t answer all our questions about what he wanted to fund, he could say clearly what he didn’t want to fund. So the road map slowly became more defined.
Ross had questions for us too. His field of study was engineering, and it was how he’d made his money, but he wanted his philanthropic dollars to go where the need was greatest. He asked us to confirm that engineering was less in need of philanthropy than fields such as physics and chemistry, thanks to its “commercial potential”; we did, and he nodded ruefully. After a pause, he turned to Marc and asked, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”
Marc had clearly pondered this question before. He smiled and described the need for an analogue to the generous Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators program, only this one supporting physical scientists and targeting mid-career, rather than early-career, researchers. “It’s just after they’ve received tenure and their start-up packages have run out, that’s when they need some money and freedom to support blue-sky ideas,” he reasoned.
Our very first conversation with Ross had revealed he liked out-of-the-box thinkers (the “restless minds” as he put it) and that he had an appetite for high-risk ideas because of the potential for high reward. In fact, one of his most satisfying past giving experiences had been fellowships because he enjoyed the personal engagement with the fellows, learning about each recipient’s work and life. This “restless minds” fellowship program, especially with its focus in the physical sciences, which he agreed was underfunded, appealed to Ross.
Learning from Others’ Experiences
Although the Alliance is a lean operation (when Ross reached out, we had eight on staff), we have an extensive network and an active and knowledgeable board and members. Among them, our members have hundreds of years of successful science grantmaking experience in every situation imaginable, and they are happy to share that expertise with new philanthropists.
In addition to his foundation’s mission and purpose, Ross had other big decisions to make. He needed some advice about clarifying intent and preventing mission drift once the founder was gone. So we arranged for a lunch with Ron Rosequist, president of The Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation. Ron had successfully navigated these issues with the now late Shurl Curci and had many lessons to share.
The Alliance has created a series of best-practice documents based on our surveys of members’ experiences, and I supplied Ross with the relevant ones (about science advisory boards and indirect costs). Since our advising services are so tailored, I also created materials specifically for him. Because of his interest in fellowship programs, I pulled together a matrix with data from three of our members with differently configured programs: Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Leon Levy Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (Packard Foundation). The matrix contained the key particulars of each program, including the internal and external staffing necessary to sustain different outcomes. Ross was grappling with the dilemma of having control over the selection process and running a small administrative operation. This document helped him understand and balance those two aims.
Since Ross had both personal and philanthropic ties to the University of Chicago (his father had been a professor there), I thought he’d feel welcome at our research partners’ conference hosted there that summer. In addition to the conference, we were holding a regional donors’ lunch, where he could meet our board chair Bob Conn of The Kavli Foundation, board member Adam Falk of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and others who were exploring ways to invest in science. A peer network is invaluable, especially in the relatively small world of basic science funders, and introducing Ross to those with similar interests was another way to help him find his path forward. Since Ross was curious about issues of branding, he arranged for additional conversations with Bob, who has preserved Fred Kavli’s legacy for years at the helm of The Kavli Foundation.
Following the lunch, Marc and I met with Ross. It gave us the opportunity to debrief with him and me the chance to present him with the funding scenarios I’d prepared, based on what he’d shared regarding resources and likely timing of his giving. One scenario outlined support for the “restless minds” program, while another described a potential partnership with the Packard Foundation’s Fellowships for Science and Engineering program, with varying numbers of fellows, including endowment and spend-down estimates and a few other factors.
A Significant Partnership
The Packard Fellowships program, in particular, provided an interesting opportunity for Ross. In September 2018, the Packard Foundation would be celebrating the 30th year of its Fellowships for Science and Engineering, with a reunion scheduled in San Diego. I thought this program’s history and culture would resonate with Ross and that observing the event and its operations would provide an excellent learning opportunity. Lynn Orr, the founding Advisory Panel member, had managed the Fellowships since their inception and brought ceaseless dedication and a fine scientific mind to their administration. I knew he would be a priceless source of wisdom for Ross. By attending, Ross would also hear from the graduating 2013 fellows about what five years of support had meant to their research and witness the enthusiasm and plans of the new 2017 Fellows.
Marc and I met with the Packard Foundation staff Walt Reid, Chad English, and longtime Fellowships Program Manager Xiao-Wei Wang to explain the situation. They were cautiously enthusiastic about opening up the program, and in the end, invited Marc and me to accompany Ross to the Packard Fellows reunion just after Labor Day. Despite his many responsibilities, Lynn was a gracious host and open about sharing his knowledge of the program. Ross left the reunion impressed with the operations and the outcomes.
Although it took some deliberations, in early 2019, Ross opted to partner with the program and continue the learning process from the inside. For the 2019 grant cycle, beginning in January and ending with the September 2020 gathering in Monterey, he agreed to fund two additional Fellows, which meant he could observe the process through its entire process: call for applications, selections through the first two rounds, deliberation, and final selection.
In under 10 months, Ross had found a space that could use additional funding, a way of giving that would be personally satisfying to him, and an experienced partner to work with. He was ready for the next step.
The Science Philanthropy Alliance announced that three foundations have joined the Alliance, supporting its mission to increase private funding for basic science. The Brinson Foundation, Ross M. Brown Family Foundation, and Sergey Brin Family Foundation have all joined as associate members. The Alliance’s membership, which consisted of six founding members in 2015, now totals 29.
The Brinson Foundation is a privately funded philanthropic organization that supports the Brinson family’s common interests in encouraging personal initiative, advancing individual freedoms and liberties, and positively contributing to society in the areas of education and scientific research. Areas of focus in science include astrophysics, cosmology, evolutionary developmental biology, geophysics, and medical research.
Recognizing that technology has been a major factor in lifting the human condition, The Ross M. Brown Family Foundation is dedicated to sponsoring research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
The Sergey Brin Family Foundation supports basic science and sees it as foundational to therapeutic progress. The foundation has a long-standing commitment to Parkinson’s disease patients, their advocates, and the scientific research community, and actively seeks innovative models that accelerate basic research.
“We are thrilled to have such enthusiastic supporters of basic science join our community,” said Valerie Conn, executive director of the Alliance. “Basic science can lead to momentous discoveries that have far-reaching benefits to humankind, and philanthropists are in a great position to support the kinds of research that the government may not.”
Valerie Conn is executive director of the Science Philanthropy Alliance
When I talk to scientists, university leaders, and development officers, I’m frequently asked questions such as: How do I get foundations to notice our scientists and our research? How do we penetrate the “black box” of the newest foundations, those that may not even have names or websites yet? How do foundations want research institutions to contact them?
Since our members are private funders who support basic science research, I went directly to them for answers. I heard from ten private funders—a diverse group including new and established foundations, those whose founders are living and actively engaged in their philanthropy, and those whose founders are no longer involved. They also had a variety of structures, from foundations to LLCs (for convenience, below I refer to all the funders as “foundations”).
Here is what I learned.
Lead with the Science!
Foundation program officers consistently expressed that they want to initially hear from the scientists because they are best at describing their research. If the foundation ends up making the grant, the program officer will already have a good working knowledge of the science and the situation. According to one program officer, “It is best for the principal investigator—not the development person—to reach out, as I take inquiries from PIs more seriously.”
Since most development officers don’t have a degree in science, their lack of expertise is quite apparent and frustrating to the program officer when the development officer pitches the research. Similarly, foundations don’t appreciate having administrators, whether the president, dean, or a development officer, cold call them to pitch a “university priority.” One program officer told me, “Universities often approach us when the dean of some school is in town to talk with us about all of the different areas of research they have underway, and those meetings are invariably not a good use of their time . . . or of ours.”
The foundation wants to learn what problems that investigator is interested in, about that investigator’s lab, and about other collaborations he or she has. In an introductory email, it is appropriate for the investigator to talk about a specific need for research. In all cases, it’s critical to do research on the particular areas of interest to a foundation before interacting with them.
Rely on Your Development Staff
So, if foundations don’t want to hear directly from development staff about science, what is their role?
One important role for development staff is to conduct and provide research. I was dismayed to hear stories about development officers who did not follow basic Development 101 processes. One program officer told me, “I am often surprised that university development folks don’t know what grants we have given to different parts of the university from my program.” Development staff should know to whom they are presenting, and prepare their scientists and university representatives accordingly.
Development staff also play a critical role in identifying, managing, and tracking the interactions with funders and potential funders. And they support scientists by accompanying them to one-on-one meetings and events that foundation staff is attending. In the words of a program officer, “The most effective foundation relations officers let the researcher be the ‘face’ of the inquiry externally. The development officer listens well and keys in on important points on our discussion. The best are guides to the researchers on how to do proposal preparation well.”
Finally, development staff play an important role in stewardship, keeping the funder/foundation staff apprised of milestones and progress, and ensuring that there is regular contact between the scientist and the program officer. But don’t do what one institution did: during a stewardship meeting on campus, the funder was solicited for a $20 million gift unrelated to the research being conducted with the first gift. The funder was not happy with the institution!
Explore Different Paths to Program Officers’ Radar
Program officers often don’t go directly to scientists when they are initially exploring a field. “We find that if we reach out directly, we raise expectations, and thus we only reach out to learn more if there is a strong probability that we are interested.”
Instead, they spend a lot of time doing their own research to learn about a field, through personal contacts or online resources. They may call a trusted advisor, a grantee, or a scientist contact and ask who is doing interesting work in a particular field or on a particular problem. So, scientists who are visible in their field have an advantage.
Science program officers may read publications and postings on the scientists’ homepages. That said, I also learned that program officers aren’t impressed with flashy websites, but instead want ease of navigation to find content about the scientific research and successes. Other online resources they explore include journals, news stories, citation database servers, and webinars or recorded talks.
An important insight that surfaced is that program officers rarely get invited to workshops that research institutions are holding, yet they are interested in attending such events. If your astronomy center or institute is convening a group of world experts to discuss recent breakthroughs in the field of dark energy, invite science program officers to attend. Let it be an opportunity to cultivate the program officer’s knowledge of this topic and show your institution’s role as a leader in this field. “We are always happy to hear about events (e.g., conferences, workshops, meetings, etc.) related to areas of interest to us or other potentially transformative efforts,” said one program officer.
But don’t present a proposal to the foundation person just because they showed up at your institution. Position yourself as a scientific thought leader with whom the foundation will want to further engage.
Again, researching what the foundation is interested in is key. One program officer told me, “Development offices often have what I would consider to be outdated modes of interaction; they rely on alumni ties or glitzy events rather than doing the legwork of really finding out what the donor wants to accomplish with their giving.”
Build Lasting Relationships
An interesting approach from one foundation is to ask the grantees or scientists they know about another investigator or institution the foundation is considering funding. If the advising scientist is prompt, forthcoming, and the information is helpful, this not only helps the foundation get the information they need, but also serves as an informal way to “try out” the scientist. One officer said, “I often will ask a researcher to review a proposal for me so I can see how they think, how responsive they are, if they can hit a deadline, if they are constructive, and so on. If a researcher writes a review on time and in scope, I am happy to talk with them about their own research.”
The importance of building a relationship with a foundation cannot be overstated. It is rare for a philanthropist to make a large gift based on what they read or viewed on a website. But I have heard many stories about how, through iterative conversations, philanthropists end up funding a principal investigator or a research project.
The Science Philanthropy Alliance provides advice and resources to philanthropists who are interested in supporting basic scientific research.
The California Institute of Technology has announced that gifts from the Amgen Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will endow graduate fellowships in biochemistry and molecular biophysics.
The fellowship program will be named in honor of Science Philanthropy Alliance consultant and Caltech president emeritus David Baltimore. In 1975, Baltimore received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the genetic mechanisms of viruses.
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation will be making three gifts totaling $30 million to fund innovative research, faculty recruitment, training, and retention at The Broad Foundation’s namesake stem cell research centers at UC San Francisco, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. This commitment, announced by the Foundation’s President Gerun Riley just before the annual gathering of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), brings the Foundation’s total support of stem cell research centers in California to $113 million since 2005.
On a clear February day in San Francisco, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Science Philanthropy Alliance cohosted an event for funders interested in basic science. Carol Christ, the university’s chancellor, welcomed attendees to the event, noting the importance of basic science.
One of the highlights of the event was a panel that the event emcee, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, moderated featuring three brilliant scientists, all faculty members at UC Berkeley. Jennifer Doudna (of CRISPR fame), Saul Perlmutter (2011 Nobel laureate), and Randy Schekman (2013 Nobel laureate) talked about the path to their transformative discoveries and discussed the importance of basic science.
Jennifer Doudna’s research focuses on the fundamental questions of how cells control the flow of genetic information using molecules called RNA to do so. She described her groundbreaking work on CRISPR CAS-9 as serendipitous, starting in 2006 with an offer to help a colleague, geo-micro-biologist Jill Banfield, who was exploring how bacteria respond to viruses.
“Jill had a hypothesis she wanted to test, so we got together, and this morphed into our investigation of ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,’ also known as CRISPR. The work on this bacterial immune system then led to my work with Emmanuelle Charpentier that uncovered the activity of a protein called CAS-9, which uses RNA molecules derived from viruses to help cells find and destroy viral DNA.”
“As we did the biochemical experiments, we realized that what we were doing with CAS-9 could be used more broadly. Scientists could program this protein to find and cut any segment of DNA, like having magical shears that go into a cell, find a place in DNA to make a cut, and then make a repair, in the process changing the genetic information,” said Doudna. “It all started with curiosity and became something very different.”
left to right: National Public Radio’s Joe Palca and University of California, Berkeley scientists Randy Schekman, Saul Perlmutter, and Jennifer Doudna
Saul Perlmutter agreed that curiosity was the driving force for his work. As an astrophysicist, he is fascinated by fundamental questions. His work led him to the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, which earned him the 2011 Nobel Prize, which he shares with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess. Perlmutter now wants to know why the universe’s expansion is accelerating. Although intellectually fascinating, the information that is accessible right now appears useless for more practical purposes, just as the theory of general relativity once did. Yet general relativity went on to be critical to global positioning system (GPS) technology. “So far, we have learned something key to our understanding of the universe we live in—and that by itself would be enough for one discovery to do for us. But who knows? It could also transform our capabilities. You need first to understand how something works before you can see if it could be useful elsewhere,” said Perlmutter.
Another Nobelist, molecular and cell biologist Randy Schekman, was enticed away from medical school plans his freshman year in college by his interest in how cells work, grow, and divide.
“My interest was in how cells manufacture protein molecules. Thirty percent of the proteins made by the 23,000 genes in our body get shipped out of the cell perimeter. Scientists in the ‘60s and ‘70s had observed that proteins are shipped out of the cell perimeter, but how this worked was a mystery. So when I arrived at Berkeley in 1976, my approach was to devise a genetic approach to examine how this worked in a similar, simple organism—baker’s yeast—which turned out to be similar to human cells,” explained Schekman.
“I found out later that Chiron, a local biotech company, used yeast to express proteins in order to make insulin. This was an unexpected result. I had not thought of my research turning into technology to produce insulin. But that’s what happens with basic science. There will be entrepreneurial people out there who will use basic science discoveries in ways the scientist never dreamt of,” he said.
Palca noted that discovery science is not a linear process. “What happens when you have a great idea but you’re stuck?” he asked. Schekman noted that scientists have to be willing to take a gamble and to take risks. Those who have the courage of their convictions will eventually find a way to take a problem and turn it around.
“I started with an approach in an area in which I had no experience, but I was willing to pursue it and I had great graduate students,” said Schekman. “When I peered into the microscope and saw the dramatic effect of mutation on yeast cells—the cell had exploded, with vesicles all over the place—I knew I had my life’s work ahead of me.”
Robert Tjian, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley, noted that the risky nature of basic science is why the Science Philanthropy Alliance was founded. Tjian was the president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and worked with five other foundations to start the Alliance in 2012. “Nonprofits and philanthropists have the capacity to take higher risks, to support the kinds of research that the NIH won’t fund,” he said.
Palca also asked the scientists about the right conditions for basic science discoveries. Schekman thought that an individual scientists’ instinct drives creativity, though teams are required to do the work. Perlmutter noted that in astrophysics, teams are critical. “All the discoveries I’ve been engaged in have been made by 20- to 30-person teams. I just led those activities,” he said.
For Doudna, it was a collaboration of herself, two students, and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s small team. The work has now expanded to much larger teams of 20 to 30 people.
At the end of the day, Frances Hellman, the dean of mathematical and physical sciences at UC Berkeley, said, “Basic science is a process with twists, turns, dead ends, and new ideas. Without it there are no translations or cures. With it we have lasers, GPS, CRISPR, and a better understanding of the universe.”
Michael Botchan, the dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley, agreed, “We don’t always know where basic science will take us, or even how to define the term. However, at its heart, the endeavor is driven by curiosity about core questions where deep general principles are at stake. Basic research leads in unanticipated ways to practical translation but also provides a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.”
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) announced $68 million in funding to support the Human Cell Atlas and its selection of 38 collaborative science teams to launch CZI’s Seed Networks for Human Cell Atlas projects. These collaborative groups bring together scientists, computational biologists, software engineers, and physicians to support the continued development of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA), an international effort to map all cells in the human body. Participants in the three-year Seed Networks projects will focus on mapping specific tissues, such as the heart, eye, or liver, in the healthy human body.
A $10 million gift from Portland’s Mary and Tim Boyle is fueling the start of a joint center in biomedical data science recently announced by the University of Oregon and Oregon Health & Science University. Read more here.
There are as many ways to do science philanthropy as there are science philanthropists. At a recent Science Philanthropy Alliance event, cohosted with UC Berkeley and the Heising-Simons Foundation, a panel of representatives from foundations shared their perspectives and practices.
Mark Heising, cofounder of the Heising-Simons Foundation, moderated a panel with Heising-Simons director of science Cyndi Atherton, Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation president Ron Rosequist, and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation chief program officer for science Robert Kirshner. As Heising pointed out, the three foundations are in three different stages of evolution, with the Curci Foundation, which got its start about ten years ago, as the youngest foundation; the Heising-Simons Foundation, established in 2007 during its “teenage years”; and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, founded in 2000 and whose founders had been giving prior to this date, as the “grown-up” of the three.
left to right: Mark Heising, Heising-Simons Foundation; Cyndi Atherton, Heising-Simons Foundation; Bob Kirshner, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; and Ron Rosequist, Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation
According to Rosequist, the Curcis started their philanthropy about ten years ago, when Shurl and Kay Curci decided that they wanted to give the bulk of their wealth to medical research. At the beginning, the Curcis, with input from their board, were giving away a few $100,000 grants, but with little process in choosing grant awardees. Rosequist suggested that they should explore a more methodical process for selecting grantees, for when their giving will eventually scale up to a much larger amount.
The first step was to articulate their mission. The Curcis started with eight pages, which they eventually distilled into a two-paragraph mission statement.
The foundation also had the luxury of time to explore its sweet spot for giving. Rosequist, a nonscientist, set about to learn as much as he could about scientific areas of interest to the Curcis. He initially called a neurosurgeon friend to get educated about neuroscience. His friend disabused him of the idea that surgeons are scientists and instead sent him to talk to actual neuroscientists. Fortunately, he had the benefit of advice from UCSF and Stanford neurosurgeon-scientists as well. Rosequist’s self-education model was to give $200,000 grants, to which was attached a requirement to help educate Rosequist about their field. Rosequist also had the fortune of being mentored by Robert Tjian, a UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, former president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and founding member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. “I would give Tij some tips about fly-fishing, and in turn, he would give me lessons on philanthropy,” Rosequist said.
Rosequist also got involved with the Science Philanthropy Alliance, attending early meetings of the group. “I, and my board members who attended some Alliance meetings, learned a lot from those meetings,” he said. “If the Alliance had existed when we were just getting started, they could have helped a lot.” He has since been called on by the Alliance several times to meet with new philanthropists who are in the position he was in ten years ago.
“We have two rules,” noted Rosequist. “If the NIH will fund it, we won’t. And we invite applications; we don’t take them over the transom.”
When Cyndi Atherton joined the Heising-Simons Foundation five years ago, “there was lots of white space,” she said. “Mark and Liz had done some work on their own, but there was pent-up demand in the physical sciences and in climate change science, and in astronomy and cosmology in particular. We borrowed the idea of doing scientist roundtables on specific topics from the Simons Foundation, and started to focus on subfields where there were a limited number of researchers so that we could have more of an impact.”
The result of this work was the foundation’s support for axion dark matter research. “In this field, there were just five groups doing research, so we could convene them and understand what the government was not funding. We’ve approached other fields in the same way—paleoclimatology, for example, which is also not a big field—so it allowed us to have more of an impact,” said Atherton. “At one roundtable, we asked the scientists what they would do if funding was not an issue, and from that we crafted a portfolio of about a dozen grants.”
This process has turned out to be the Heising-Simons Foundation’s model for funding “white space.” “We look at an area, bring experts together, and ask our advisory board to bring in ideas. We work to understand where the field is, what the federal government is doing, and what our role might be,” said Atherton. “We’ve done this now for condensed matter physics, cold atomic physics, astronomy, and climate change science.”
In contrast to the Curci Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Bob Kirshner came into the Moore Foundation when it already had an established program. The founders are still alive and very influential, so taking over a preexisting program meant working with the founder.
“Fortunately, the Moore Foundation already had good taste,” said Kirshner, citing his personal knowledge of some of the Moore Foundation’s grantees from Harvard, where Kirshner was a faculty member in the astronomy department before he joined the foundation. “To continue to find good people without a call for proposals, I rely on our program staff who are very knowledgeable, alert, and know what’s going on in the field,” he said.
Kirshner also highlighted the Statement of Founders’ Intent, which he describes as “like the Constitution to us. We are lucky to have this document, which our founders wrote a few years ago, that outlines what we should do and not do. Gordon and Betty wrote this with the thought that the foundation, which is meant to operate in perpetuity, won’t be the same 50 years from now. They also believed that the rate of knowledge can be increased by funding areas that don’t fit conventional funding sources,” he explained.
The statement also includes filters for selecting what the foundation should support:
Is it important?
Can we make an enduring difference?
Is it measurable?
Does it contribute to a portfolio effect?
Kirshner also discussed the foundation’s science advisory board and the belief at the foundation that doing things at scale is better than doing a lot of little things. “This is why we have initiatives that focus on a specific field at the scale of $100 million over six-to-eight years. We have initiatives in marine microbiology, in quantum materials, in data science, as well as a commitment supporting the Thirty Meter Telescope,” he said.
Risk: A Positive for Science Foundations
Heising also asked the panel if their foundations thought of risk as a positive or a negative characteristic in potential grantees. Atherton claimed that the Heising-Simons Foundation likes to view it as a positive. “For example, with our axion dark matter grants, our outside reviewers highlighted one scientist as a really great scientist but whose ideas were risky. We didn’t know if this person would succeed, but we went for it,” she explained.
Kirshner expanded on Atherton’s comments. “Working with government agencies is like jujitsu. We are small, they are large, so we look for ways we can affect what they do by adroitly applying the modest forces we can bring to bear,” he said. Kirshner cited the example of a project to make coatings for mirrors that could make the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) twice as good. “LIGO was a billion dollar NSF investment, but the NSF had its hands full just running it, so the Moore Foundation provided funding that will make those mirror coatings available in time for the next LIGO upgrade,” he explained.
Ultimately, philanthropy plays a critical role in funding science, one that is distinct from the role of government. As Atherton noted, “The NSF answers to the taxpayers; they have to show progress. We don’t. Our goal is new knowledge.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a topic of growing interest among members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. At our recent members’ meeting, Joyce Yen, director of the University of Washington’s ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, presented members with research on the consequences of bias and some effective practices to address it. Cyndi Atherton, director of science at the Heising-Simons Foundation, shared how the foundation was made aware of bias in the selection process for their 51 Pegasi b fellowship program and how they addressed it to effect lasting change.
Atherton wrote a blog post about how the Heising-Simons Foundation retooled its processes for the fellowship program to make it more inclusive and equitable. With help from Joyce and her team, the Heising-Simons Foundation reviewed evidence-based best practices, gathered feedback and guidance from scientists, and implemented many changes at every stage of the process.
The foundation recently also shared the initiatives they support to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics and astronomy.
Scientists who become philanthropists are especially attuned to the needs of basic science. At a recent UC Berkeley-Science Philanthropy Alliance event for philanthropists, a conversation with Frances Hellman, physicist and dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, and Jim Simons, mathematician, investor, and chair of the board of the Simons Foundation, provided some insights into how scientist-philanthropists think about supporting basic science. Bob Birgeneau, physics professor and chancellor emeritus at UC Berkeley, moderated the discussion.
Why Basic Science
Birgeneau asked Hellman and Simons to define basic science. Hellman noted that basic science is curiosity-driven. In her own research on magnetism and non-crystalline materials, for example, she didn’t start by trying to make better, faster computers. “Many, many engineers are working on this,” she said. “Instead, I start with trying to understand magnetism and how electronic properties interact with each other, which may have a relevance to computers. By not answering a specific question, scientists can have a greater impact.”
Simons agreed on the unforeseen benefits of basic science. His own field of research, pure mathematics, is by definition basic science. While he was at Stony Brook University, he collaborated on a paper called “Characteristic Forms and Geometric Invariants” with S.S. Chern, from whom Simons took a seminar ten years earlier as a graduate student at UC Berkeley. The paper was in a field of mathematics related to topology and geometry, but to Simons’ surprise has turned out to be useful in a number of fields of theoretical physics. “You never know where basic science discoveries are going to go,” he said.
from left to right: Bob Birgeneau, physics professor and chancellor emeritus at UC Berkeley; Frances Hellman, physicist and dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley and president of the Hellman Fellows Fund; and Jim Simons, mathematician, investor, and chair of the board of the Simons Foundation
Kicking off Their Philanthropy
Birgeneau asked Hellman and Simons how they got started on their philanthropy.
Hellman recounted, “After I received my own tenure, I talked to my parents about the funding issues that assistant professors often face. Tenure requires not just brilliant ideas, but financial support for research. However, the National Science Foundation’s peer review system, while useful, is inherently risk averse. The chances of six peers rating any risky research as excellent is vanishingly small. And as we’ve heard, the path to discovery is not a straight one, so there’s a real need to support young faculty.”
“So I created a fund with my parents to enable early-career pre-tenure faculty – faculty who are in their debt years and without the track record needed to obtain federal research grants – to do research. We started at UC Berkeley where my father went to school and UC San Diego where I had been an assistant professor. My parents loved this program because assistant professors would meet with them and talk to them about their research and send them books,” she described.
“As dean, I can help faculty and students create knowledge and make discoveries. As president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, I can help provide the financial support that they need. I love being able to empower young faculty to explore their ideas.”
Simons recounted his own experience.
“Bob Birgeneau was the first to extract money from us as the dean of science at MIT – that was my first experience with science philanthropy. My wife Marilyn and I started a foundation 25 years ago. It was a catchall foundation. We decided in 2004 to focus on basic science; our other giving would be outside the foundation,” he said.
“We started by supporting research on the foundations of autism, which is a puzzling condition. It’s an ongoing project. We then gave to math and physics and started collaborations to explore the origins of life. The National Institutes of Health will not provide funding to learn that secret. These collaborations now support 30-40 private investigators.”
The Simons Foundation not only gives grants to scientists, but now also conducts its own research. “Six years ago, we decided to do some research in-house, so we started the Simons Center for Data Analysis, headed by Leslie Greengard, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D. in computer science, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering,” said Simons. “The center does computational science in the biology area. We’ve since generalized the notion and, under the new name of the Flatiron Institute, added computational astrophysics, computational quantum physics, and computational mathematics,” he said.
“Marilyn and I are having a very good time running this foundation, which hopefully will go on in perpetuity,” he summarized.
Running their Philanthropies
Birgeneau then asked Hellman and Simons about how they run their philanthropic organizations. Hellman noted that her family’s philanthropy continues to fund people rather than projects. Previous Hellman fellows make up a committee to select the next set of award winners, which has turned out to be a useful mechanism.
Frances is president of the Hellman Fellows Fund, as well as a director of the Hellman Foundation, which she and her four siblings run. “They all believe in basic science, in a variety of fields including physical and life sciences and the social sciences. We have different interests, but we are very supportive of each other, so it has worked very well.”
Simons noted that his wife Marilyn is the president, while he is chair of board of the Simons Foundation. Marilyn is in charge of the business side of the foundation and oversees education and outreach, including Quanta magazine and projects like films about science, while Jim oversees the science work.
“There are lots of things I’m excited about, including a cosmic microwave background (CMB) telescope; the CMB is the leftover glow from the Big Bang. This telescope can discern primordial gravitational waves that would have occurred in the Big Bang, and so we hope it can tell us if the theory of the universe’s inflation in the earliest moments of the Big Bang is true. Either the theory is true, and someone will win a Nobel prize, or it isn’t and we’re back to the drawing board on the origins of life. I can’t lose on this bet,” he said, noting that his daughter and son-in-law’s Heising-Simons Foundation is also supporting related work.
Ultimately, funding basic science is exciting and satisfying work for both Hellman and Simons. In Simons’ words: “It’s fun to be a philanthropist of science.”