Author Archives for Jessica Buterbaugh

Science philanthropy engagement with minority-serving institutions: The why, how, and what

January 20, 2023 8:00 am Published by Leave a comment

Alignment of Science Philanthropy with Minority-Serving Institutions

While there are as many motivations to support scientific research as there are philanthropists, one that is nearly universal is the desire to make an impact. France Córdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, recently noted, “When I talk with foundation heads, the word most frequently used is ‘impact’—they want their investments to make a difference.” This desire for impact leads many science philanthropists, especially those interested in supporting basic science, toward underexplored paths within the research landscape. Beyond the aim to fill gaps in specific research topics or fields of study, though, there remains an underexplored, underfunded opportunity to make an impact by supporting Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

The category of MSIs includes a variety of institution types, including public and private, rural, urban, and suburban. Included in that are many research institutions—both emerging and well-established—that confer doctoral degrees in the STEM fields. As research enterprises increasingly understand that diversity, equity, and inclusiveness can catalyze scientific discovery and innovation, MSIs offer philanthropists an opportunity that aligns well with the kind of long-term, outsized impact that so many seek.

At the Alliance, a shared interest group was created in response to the growing interests of philanthropic science funders to support underrepresented groups in STEM as well as culture change in scientific research enterprises. As of September 2022, the group has 40 members representing 20 different organizations. Similar types of groups have also emerged within other funder collaboratives, including at the Health Research Alliance and Open Research Funders Group.

Aligned with this interest by many funders to foster more diverse talent and environments, MSIs have broad reach and proven effectiveness in supporting these efforts. The National Academies’ 2019 consensus report on MSIs showed that they enroll 30 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S. in higher education, producing one-fifth of the nation’s STEM bachelor’s degrees, and train many that go on to graduate and start successful careers. Lorelle Espinosa, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and co-chair of the consensus report, underscores the intentionality of MSIs. She stresses that such intentionality “drives the creation of programs, practices, and policies that are tailored to recognize and address student differences across multiple dimensions: academic, financial, social, and with cultural mindfulness.” MSIs’ approaches can serve as a model to engage, train, and work with diverse individuals who have STEM aspirations.

Similarly, many philanthropic science funders have priorities in promoting scientific outreach and engagement that fit well with the strengths of MSIs. Geared toward building the public’s engagement with, understanding of, and trust in science, the Alliance is ideally situated to see trends forming in this area and has seen a growing rise in the number of funders prioritizing this type of grantmaking alongside more traditional research funding. In 2019, six philanthropic organizations started the Science in Society Funder Collaborative with strong interests in supporting this work at the intersection of science and society. From those initial six organizations, the network has grown to 12 science funders supporting a network of leaders directly working in this space.

For their part, MSIs have established trust with the communities they serve, according to Victor McCrary, vice president for research at the University of the District of Columbia—one of 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—and vice chair of the National Science Board. As such, MSIs are excellent thought partners to advance scientific outreach and engagement, especially for challenges, like infectious diseases, climate change, renewable energy, and water/food security, facing their communities. McCrary notes that many of the public health problems we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic came down to “a question of trust and connection to the community.” With trust, communities are more likely to believe research outputs and the recommendations coming from research institutions to guide their understanding of, engagement with, and response to scientific issues.

Despite the strong alignment between MSIs and philanthropy MSIs receive only limited philanthropic funding. Twyla Baker, president of Neuta Hidatsa Sahnish College, the tribally-chartered college of the Three Affiliated Tribes, reinforces this discrepancy from the perspective of Native American organizations: “[These indigenous organizations] across the board of different issues receive only 0.4% of philanthropic dollars.”

“[MSIs] are used to stretching a dollar, but [they] would rather not,” says Adele de la Torre, the first woman and first Latina to serve as a permanently appointed president of San Diego State University, a Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI).

Tips for Philanthropic Engagement with MSIs

To better understand this disparity and how science philanthropy can better-support MSIs, in December 2021 the Alliance convened a roundtable discussion with philanthropic funders and MSI leaders. The perspectives of Baker, de la Torre, and McCrary provided meaningful insights into the MSIs they represent and beyond.

With more than 10 years of experience in science philanthropy, Cyndi Atherton, director of the science program at the Heising-Simons Foundation, asked what fellow science philanthropic funders should keep in mind when engaging with MSIs.

“There is an enormous disconnect [between funders and the environments they seek to influence]—it is a problem but also presents itself as an opportunity,” said Baker. Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) protect the interests of their community. For research, it’s about asking, “What does the community like to happen, as opposed to bringing in issues for the community?”

“There is an enormous disconnect [between funders and the environments they seek to influence]—it is a problem but also presents itself as an opportunity.”
Twyla Baker, President,
Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College

De la Torre noted, “We are often chasing dollars that do not fit…due to metrics (of evaluation) that only fit the most elite research institutions. Often, the financial capacity of the institution to ‘match’ funds is weighted in such a way as to quietly disqualify most MSIs. That’s an artifact of a different time, where the model of federal funding privileged access to research funds to larger public and Ivy League institutions.” De la Torre recommended developing RFPs where MSIs “would be on an equal footing, or even provided additional consideration given the commitment and opportunities they will provide to their diverse faculty and student populations.”

McCrary stressed the importance of viewing these relationships as more “transformational than transactional,” requiring a mindset change among science funders. He highlighted the importance of coming into these conversations without condescension but as equals, and encourages funders to do weekend visits to understand MSIs and what they offer.

Delving into the unique role of philanthropy in the funding landscape, another question focused on what funding gaps would be best suited for philanthropy to support. De la Torre suggested focusing on endowments to support emerging private-public partnerships (P3s) in MSIs. According to de la Torre, supporting this intersection is important not only for funding critical projects when and where state dollars are not available, but also for advancing research into practice and its applications. This would also facilitate workforce development in the communities the MSIs serve, which would further stimulate economic development and greater wealth in historically underserved communities. Despite this multiplied impact, “no one is funding these types of MSI projects or recognizing the true levels of their economic impact,” said de la Torre.

Baker echoed de la Torre’s comment on the importance of supporting the workforce in MSIs. Because of their often-rural settings, Baker shared that it can be difficult to bring in people to work at tribal colleges. This circumstance and their already limited staff hinder their ability to respond to funding opportunities when they arise. Baker shared that when these opportunities come her way, she often asks if there is money or resources to do this work.

Building capacity was a trend across the responses during the conversation—McCrary shared that funding “endowed research chairs and research administration supplemental grants” would be unique for philanthropy. He also highlighted the importance of engaging with minority technical organizations, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics (SACNAS) and Native Americans in Sciences and the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), which help keep students in STEM academic programs.

Other philanthropic funders were curious about the characteristics of a successful partnership between MSIs and other research institutions. De la Torre stressed that this is a deeply rooted issue that requires system-level solutions and approaches. She urged funders to pay close attention to how resources are distributed, observing that “even in the best partnerships, there is inequity.” All panelists highlighted the importance of sustained relationships.

Isaac Agbeshie-Noye, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, asked what sustainability looks or feels like in terms of relationships between science philanthropic funders and MSIs. Baker thought of a 20–25-year research project that looks at traditional foods that exist on the reservation. “[This project] isn’t just about culture but is also relevant to how we live and threats to food structures,” said Baker, reinforcing the importance of listening to the research directions of MSIs and the need for long-term engagement.

“I realize it’s not your job to teach the rest of the world,” Atherton concluded, “but I also want to acknowledge how useful it is for us to hear you and to begin to learn on our own what we need to be doing and doing better.”

“[Minority-serving institutions] are often chasing dollars that do not fit…due to metrics [of evaluation] that only fit the most elite research institutions. Often, the financial capacity of the institution to ‘match’ funds is weighted in such a way as to quietly disqualify most MSIs.”
— Adela de la Torre, President, San Diego State University

Building the Foundation for Sustained Philanthropic Engagement with MSIs

Although the relationship between science philanthropy and MSIs is still evolving, the Alliance has seen a growing number of examples in recent years of philanthropists advancing the roles of scientific enterprises by engaging with and supporting these important institutions.

For example, with an understanding of the resource limitations in MSIs, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, is working to form long-lasting partnerships with HBCUs, HSIs, and TCUs and to support their research capacity. Toward this goal, they recently made a commitment to grant at least 20 percent of their funding to underserved institutions, which include MSIs.

The Simons Foundation, on the other hand, is also bolstering others’ established relationships with MSIs. For example, the foundation has partnered with the Morehouse School of Medicine to support Morehouse’s summer undergraduate research program at Harvard University. Inspired by a recent visit to Spelman College, the foundation also committed $5.7 million to faculty there to address the high teaching loads often observed in HBCUs.

Finally, the Sloan Foundation created a grantmaking area specifically designed to harness the great talent and undergraduate diversity at MSIs. The Creating Equitable Pathways to STEM Graduate Education initiative supports educational pathways for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx/a/o students from MSIs to enroll in STEM graduate programs through innovative partnerships. The program’s inaugural investment of $5 million in 2021 funded 20 grants across 66 partner institutions. One such grant between Northern Arizona University and their partners, Diné College and Northern Arizona University-Yuma, aims to increase the number of Indigenous and Latinx/a/o students in STEM graduate programs.

Many philanthropic funders are developing blueprints to increase their systemic engagement with and support for MSIs in transformative and sustained ways. At the Alliance, we are enthusiastic to support this vision and the work of new and established science philanthropic funders to further advance scientific research and impact.


To download a copy of this report, click here.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation award $1.25M grants to experimental physicists

October 27, 2022 6:17 pm Published by Leave a comment

Sixteen researchers from 14 universities across the U.S. have been named as the first cohort of experimental physicists to receive funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The new initiative awards $1.25 million dollars to each researcher to advance scientific inquiry in experimental physics. Read more about the recipients and the award on the Foundation’s website.

Schmidt Futures to fund $148M AI research initiative

October 26, 2022 6:48 am Published by Leave a comment

Schmidt Futures, a Science Philanthropy Alliance benefactor, have launched a $148 million initiative that will fund post-doctoral research in artificial intelligence to increase scale of interdisciplinary research across STEM fields. Learn more about The Eric and Wendy Schmidt AI in Science Postdoctoral Fellowship program and the impact it will have on the future of science research here.

Podcast highlights importance of environmental philanthropy

October 19, 2022 7:26 pm Published by Leave a comment

On the most recent episode of Resources Radio podcast, Evan Michelson, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, spoke to host Kristin Hayes about the importance of philanthropy on environmental research. Click here to listen to the full episode – A Funder’s View on Energy and the Environment – and learn more about why science philanthropy matters.

Alliance President France A. Córdova speaks at Science Summit at UNGA

October 6, 2022 6:30 pm Published by Leave a comment

Science Philanthropy Alliance President France A. Córdova recently served as a keynote speaker at the Science Summit at United Nations General Assembly held September 13-30 in New York City.  In her address titled “International collaboration for scientific discovery and sustainable development,” Córdova highlighted philanthropy as an integral part of scientific discovery and the critical role it plays in advancing science across the globe. Included below is a transcript of her address.


International Collaboration for Scientific Discovery and Sustainable Development

“There are three things that to me are remarkable about the UN Sustainability Goals. One is that they exist at all – a tribute to leadership and foresight of the 193 UN member states that adopted them in 2015. A second is that as I review the list of goals, I am struck that the word science is not mentioned explicitly in any of them, yet to achieve any one of the goals requires fundamental scientific research. And third, none can be achieved without the nations of the world coming together with concrete plans – and dedicated people – to address them. This is at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal #17.  

In my remarks I will elaborate on these observations: I will give examples of how scientific research is addressing some of these goals and how this is being done in an international context. Since I presently head an alliance of philanthropic foundations whose mission is to advance discovery research, I will emphasize the contributions of philanthropy to addressing the UN sustainability goals by investing in scientific research.

 Let me first give some background I bring to this discussion. I have served as president or chancellor of two U.S. universities, both having broad international programs, encouraging collaboration and experiential learning abroad. I have served in three federal science agencies: the National Science Foundation, NASA, and a Department of Energy Laboratory – often at the behest of five US presidents and the U.S. Senate. In my positions I have worked in an international science sphere. I have seen at close hand the power that science can have when applied to pressing world problems.

I’ll give three examples. As President of Purdue University, I accompanied faculty member and World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejecta to the country of his origin, Ethiopia, to meet with the presidents of ten Ethiopian universities and talk to them about development of faculty, including faculty exchanges. Dr. Ejecta won his prize by increasing by five-fold the yield of sorghum, a principal grain of sub-Saharan Africa. His basic scientific research into Africa’s hunger has had far-reaching results for millions of Africans.  

Second, as NASA’s Chief Scientist, its first woman in that position, I accompanied the head of NASA on his frequent trips to Congress to persuade our elected representatives to vote in favor of an International Space Station. Once approved for funding, I led NASA’s science utilization team. The basic research to both build the ISS and utilize it for science in a global context have yielded scientific discoveries. Significantly, the ISS has demonstrated the power and promise of international collaboration.

“I have seen at close hand the power that science
can have when applied to pressing world problems.”

My third example is that as Director of NSF I represented the US at significant international meetings – including G7 science meetings on, for example, climate change. I also partnered with more than 60 international heads of science agencies to promote and sustain the Global Research Council, which has developed policy guidance on many issues related to the conduct of science.  

These examples showed me that science can make a significant impact on both discovery and policy when broadened to include an international approach.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recognized this when it launched its initiative five years ago called “Challenges for International Scientific Partnerships.” The initiative, supported with funding from several philanthropic foundations, has resulted in three reports. The first report focused on principles for international engagement and the second report focused on international collaboration on large-scale science initiatives. Only one week ago, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which I head, was pleased to co-sponsor with the Academy a discussion of its third and final report, with foundation heads and others attending. The theme of that report was “Global Connections: Emerging Science Partners.” Its content spoke to the final UN Sustainability Goal, Partnerships, with an emphasis on partnerships with low and lower middle-income countries, as defined by the World Bank (or “least developed” as identified by the UN).

In the words of Academy president David Oxtoby, “…our country must fully participate in all scientific endeavors, including collaborations with talent in all parts of the world, and promote a just and equitable society.” These words echo other UN sustainability goals for equity, as well as peace, justice, and strong institutions.

International research partnerships can take on many forms. As noted in the Academy’s recent report, they are meant to “promote scientific advancement, strengthen global S&T capacity, and enhance global understanding and science diplomacy.” Here are some examples that surfaced from our discussion last week, and other examples from our experience with philanthropies…

As a first example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation forms international partnerships that foster innovation to solve global health and development problems through its Discovery and Translational sciences program. The Gates Foundation launched its first Grand Challenge in Global Health as an open call for proposals in 2003, and since then, the Grand Challenges platform has been expanded to source innovators around the world to address many topics in global health and development, often with multiple international funding partners. Each Grand Challenge builds a grant program that facilitates collaboration among researchers and implementors across projects for accelerated impact.

In our discussion last week, which focused on funding discovery science in Africa, the Gates Foundation highlighted the Grand Challenges Africa initiative, which was created in 2015 as a partnership framework to jointly launch challenges to support African investigators. Grand Challenges Africa works in partnership with the African Union Development Agency – New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) with support from the Gates Foundation and other funders around the world to promote Africa-led scientific innovations to help countries better achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Drug Discovery program, for example, has created a network of researchers across the African continent as part of a partnership between Switzerland’s Medicines for Malaria Venture and the University of Cape Town Drug Discovery & Development Centre. Similar Grand Challenge partnership frameworks have been established elsewhere, such as in India and Brazil. Globally, the network of Grand Challenges funders has now awarded nearly 3,600 grants to investigators in 117 countries.

As a second example, the Rockefeller Foundation has a long history of funding agricultural research to support sustainable development. As described in the Academy’s Global Connections report, the Rockefeller Foundation launched the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in the early 20th century, and this Institute helped prevent widespread famine in Asia following the end of World War II. Today, it is part of a network of 15 independent nonprofit research centers around the globe that are part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and it continues to support research to promote food security internationally through innovative agricultural research.

“… science can make a significant impact on both discovery and policy when broadened to include an international approach.”

More recently, in May 2022 the Rockefeller Foundation launched a new food science funding partnership – the Periodic Table of Food Initiative. Recognizing that only a small percentage of the known food biochemicals are described in current food composition databases, this collaborative initiative provides tools and infrastructure for the global community to catalog the biochemical composition of the world’s food supply. The vision for this initiative is to overcome society’s greatest food challenges through data-driven solutions for the improvement of human and planetary health. The initiative takes a sustainable food systems approach to understanding the drivers of food composition, collecting metadata on environmental, agricultural, social, and economic variables that impact food composition. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is building a global ecosystem of Centers of Excellence on each continent to drive research and innovation, lead capacity strengthening, and champion the translation of science. Further, the initiative seeks to partner with government research institutions as National Lab Partners to integrate food composition analysis into ongoing public health and agricultural work, contributing to several of the Sustainable Development Goals.

My last example is the Bertarelli Program in Marine Science, a collaborative program that brings together scientists from around the world to work in the Indian Ocean. Through this program, the Bertarelli Foundation provides long-term funding to advance marine science that can be applied to conservation, directly addressing Sustainable Development Goal #14 (Life Below Water) and contributing to several others. This work began in 2010, when the British Government, with the help of the Bertarelli Foundation, declared the creation of the world’s largest “fully no take” marine protected area in a mostly uninhabited region of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Recognizing the value of this marine protected area for scientific discovery, in 2013 the Bertarelli Foundation convened an international and interdisciplinary group of scientists to develop a coordinated approach to scientific research in the region.

The first phase of the Bertarelli Marine Science Program, established in 2017, has transformed our understanding of the benefits of large marine protected areas for ocean conservation and ecosystem health. Its research themes include coral reef resilience, sentinel species research, translating science into marine protected area management, and science communication. Now in its second phase and in partnership with another philanthropic funder, the Bertarelli Marine Science Program supports scientists from dozens of institutions across six countries to advance our understanding of marine ecosystems. As in the first phase, the program uses its research findings to inform the management of marine protected areas and support the international commitments to Sustainable Development Goal 14. The Bertarelli Foundation is also a key partner in the UN Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), an international collaboration of scientists, funders, and policymakers to facilitate the ocean science needed for sustainable development.

These examples also emphasize not only the importance of international collaboration but also the importance of investing in fundamental research (including both pure and use-inspired basic research). As the Academy report recommends, such investment “should also be expanded … [because] understanding the foundation of physical, life, and chemical sciences can lead to productive innovation and technology…”

“[The] Science Philanthropy Alliance, which is composed of nearly 40 foundations that fund science, calls for philanthropic support for discovery science, including both curiosity-driven and use-inspired research with a quest for knowledge. Importantly, we recognize that fundamental science and its applications co-evolve and catalyze each other. Investment in both fundamental and applied science is required for a vibrant future.”

To further illustrate this point, last week, the Gates Foundation held its annual Goalkeepers event, which is dedicated to tracking progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on Goals 1-6. While this year’s Goalkeepers report demonstrated that the crises over the last several years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have greatly hindered progress towards these goals, it also emphasized the incredible potential of innovation and scientific breakthroughs. As Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates note in the 2022 report, “No projection can ever account for the possibility of game-changing innovation because when those breakthroughs happen, they change all the fundamental assumptions embedded in that equation.”

This is the power of discovery-oriented inquiry. We give an example of this in the Science Philanthropy Alliance’s newly released strategic plan. “In the COVID-19 era, we are amazed at the speed with which mRNA vaccines were deployed to address the pandemic, but if we step back and look at all the elements that came together to develop these vaccines, we see a web of scientific discoveries, creatively stitched together… Today’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are built on a long chain of fundamental science: understanding how a chemically simple molecule, DNA, can pass genetic information down through generations; the insight that another simple molecule, RNA, is the key to expressing that information in the body; the realization that making, reading, and discarding the RNA message must be closely regulated so the wrong instructions are not followed at the wrong time. This amazing feat of bioengineering, viewed as having occurred in the span of nine months, stands on the back of 60 years or more of scientific discovery. Investing in basic research yields a remarkable return on investment.”

For these reasons, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which is composed of nearly 40 foundations that fund science, calls for philanthropic support for discovery science, including both curiosity-driven and use-inspired research with a quest for knowledge. Importantly, we recognize that fundamental science and its applications co-evolve and catalyze each other. Investment in both fundamental and applied science is required for a vibrant future.

Further, engaging more talent in discovery science through international collaboration creates more opportunities for breakthroughs to occur. Transformative ideas can come from anywhere, and research shows that a greater diversity of perspectives leads to increased innovation. Thus, increased international collaboration among researchers, funders, policymakers, and other stakeholders will be critical for accelerating the discoveries and breakthroughs that are needed to achieve the sustainable development goals.

So how can we best support international scientific partnerships, particularly with partners in less developed countries? Here I’ll highlight some of the recommendations from our recent philanthropy roundtable on this topic.

As background, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report provided several overarching recommendations for strengthening collaborations with low and lower-middle income countries, referred to as emerging science partners. While the recommendations are for the U.S., they can be applied to other higher-income countries as well. The first is that we should actively foster collaborations with emerging science partners, including by welcoming researchers and graduate students from these countries to our universities and research institutions. Rather than brain drain, the goal is to promote brain circulation, where each country’s researchers learn from each other and develop new skills to advance research in their home countries. The second is that we should contribute to efforts that build global research capacity and a global STEM workforce. And finally, collaborations with emerging science partners should reflect the values of transparency and equity. Our discussion highlighted the importance of gender equity in science, relevant to Goal 5.

“The benefits of international engagement are many, including learning from different models, expanding capacity to accelerate innovation, and collaboratively addressing global challenges. I am inspired by the many examples of scientists, funders, policymakers, and others in the community who are engaging in these types of collaborations …”

The report makes specific recommendations for different types of collaborators, including for foundations and the private sector. In addition to providing funding, foundations can be thought partners for building scientific infrastructure. The report recommends that foundations support university collaborations, including exchange programs, and scientific society programs that facilitate global science and expand interactions between scientists in different countries. Foundations could also support training for lawyers at emerging science partner universities, so these institutions are better positioned to establish MOUs, IP, and other formal agreements. And particularly relevant to our conversation today, the report recommends considering basic science investment for emerging science partners as an indirect but key path toward innovation and economic growth.

Since our roundtable discussion focused specifically on funding discovery science in Africa, the chairs of the study highlighted what they see as a transformational opportunity to develop scientific infrastructure in Africa. They made the case for building a synchrotron light source in Africa, which would enable researchers across the continent to conduct investigations in fields such as materials science, physics, chemistry, structural biology, and medicine, with many translational and clinical applications. While outside funding and partners are needed, the project would be locally led, creating opportunities to develop and retain talent in Africa.

Building on these recommendations, we then facilitated a roundtable discussion with funders and scientists working in Africa. They emphasized several points:

First, the importance of philanthropy for strengthening institutions. Our panelists noted that there is immense scientific talent in Africa, demonstrated for example by the extremely high quality and number of applications for a new NASEM U.S. Africa Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine program. Yet, many institutions lack the capability to support researchers in competing for and managing major grants. Philanthropies can support partnerships between institutions in the U.S. and Africa, as well as other efforts that build institutional capacity to support African scientists throughout the research process.

Second, the discussion highlighted the value of philanthropy for creating pathways that incentivize African scientists to pursue scientific careers in Africa, even after training elsewhere. An example is the Gates Foundation’s Calestous Juma Fellowship, which provides five years of funding, networking opportunities, and leadership and skills trainings for scientists permanently located at African research organizations. Our discussion also acknowledged the need for programs that provide mentorship to early career African scientists, who benefit from having mentors both within the continent and in higher income countries.

Finally, we discussed the role that philanthropy can play in enabling African-led scientific efforts. Currently, 50% of the funding for science in Africa comes from outside of the continent, and historically this has shifted the research agenda. Equitable funding approaches are needed to put the scientific agendas of African scientists back at the forefront by catalyzing African-led programs and research collaborations. This approach is especially relevant for achieving the sustainable development goals, as African researchers, policymakers, and funders have the local knowledge needed to establish research priorities and translate science into solutions for sustainable development. Further, philanthropies should think long-term and develop partnerships to help ensure the sustainability of new initiatives.

In closing, the Global Connections report and this roundtable discussion provided a strong foundation for developing international partnerships to advance scientific discovery and ultimately, sustainable development. As one of our panelists noted, science is a global endeavor, and many of the most important issues that humanity faces can only be solved through international collaboration.

The benefits of international engagement are many, including learning from different models, expanding capacity to accelerate innovation, and collaboratively addressing global challenges. I am inspired by the many examples of scientists, funders, policymakers, and others in the community who are engaging in these types of collaborations, and I look forward to a near future where international scientific partnerships are increasingly leveraged to realize the sustainable development goals. Thank you.”


Dana Foundation Awards Planning Grants to 11 Universities

September 28, 2022 6:45 pm Published by Leave a comment

The Dana Foundation, a Science Philanthropy Alliance member, today announced the recipients of the Dana Centers for Neuroscience and Society planning grants. Eleven US-based institutions will receive funding in this first phase of a two-part grant process to address gaps in training and research for scholars whose work focuses on neuroscience’s positive impact on society. Learn more about the grant and the 11 recipients here.

Science Philanthropy Spotlight: Envisioning a Single-Shot Cure for HIV

July 25, 2022 3:02 pm Published by Leave a comment

One of Science’s Biggest Challenges

In the early 1980s, scientists raced to discover the cause of a mysterious disease that was attacking immune systems and ravaging communities across the globe. Building on a foundation of discovery science, researchers would eventually identify the culprit as a virus. Specifically, the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

“There was elation,” says former Alliance External Science Advisor David Baltimore, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research that led to the discovery of retroviruses like HIV. “We knew how to deal with viruses—you make a vaccine and the virus is controlled. But those of us who had spent a little time working on HIV recognized that it wasn’t any ordinary virus.”

Sadly, Baltimore’s concerns about the unique challenge of HIV proved right. “We rapidly saw that if you tried to make a vaccine for HIV, the virus would simply mutate around it,” he noted recently at a learning session for funders organized by the Alliance. “By the late 1980s, we recognized that controlling HIV was going to be one of the most difficult problems science had ever faced. And that’s turned out to be exactly right.”

Today, there are 38 million people worldwide living with HIV, 67% of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV/AIDS remains a leading cause of death. Although tremendous progress has been made against the disease, a cure remains elusive and nearly half of those living with HIV are unable to access or remain on one of our most effective tools—antiretroviral therapy (ART)—34 years after it was developed.

Thankfully, there are also signs that a breakthrough could be on the horizon with the proper support and focus. This includes advances in genome editing technology, our growing understanding of HIV biology, and lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic—all of which are converging to inspire a promising new approach.

HIV Frontiers info graphic

A Bold New Goal

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s HIV Frontiers Program was formed with a bold goal—to develop within the next decade a single-shot cure for HIV. The hope is for an intervention that lowers the recipient’s viral load enough over a long enough period to cause remission of the disease and prevent its transmission. Equally important, such a shot would need to be affordable and accessible in even the most resource-limited areas.

Leading this effort for the foundation is Mike McCune—a physician-scientist who has worked for 40 years with patients with HIV. This has included collaborations with Baltimore, who describes McCune as someone who brings “formidable tools” to the battle against HIV, including his willingness to ask the “unusual” questions that are often needed to make breakthroughs in such a challenging field. Prior to joining the Gates Foundation in 2018, McCune co-founded two companies developing HIV treatments before returning to academia in 1995 as an investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology and, later, as the founder and chief of the UCSF Division of Experimental Medicine. McCune’s blend of corporate, philanthropic, health, and academic sector experiences shows up in HIV Frontiers’ approach, which sees each playing a unique role through the lifespan of the program.

The effort also benefits from a serendipitous connection between HIV and sickle cell disease (SCD)— itself a major cause of death and disability in many under-resourced communities. In sub-Saharan Africa, which bears the brunt of the global SCD burden, it’s estimated that 1,000 children a day are born with SCD and that half of those will likely die before age five. “The approach we take with sickle cell shares [with HIV] some of that core target biology,” says Emily Turner, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. “So, a lot of the insights we get from sickle cell will immediately transfer on a scientific front into HIV.”

“There’s a significant unmet need for a cure for HIV and SCD, especially in resource-limited parts of the world,” says McCune. “HIV Frontiers is prepared with an end-to-end roadmap to achieve both the technical goals as well as the delivery goals needed to meet this need.”

To realize this vision of a single-shot cure, the program is exploring two platforms:

  1. In vivo (within the body) gene therapy: This builds on proven ex vivo (outside the body) approaches for SCD, which could result in a single-shot treatment that modifies blood cells to result in a durable cure for both HIV and SCD.
  2. Therapeutic vaccination: Although HIV normally evades the immune system, promising breakthroughs in protein engineering and mRNA vaccines offer a glimpse of new hope. These are the same breakthroughs that enabled the safe, rapidly developed, and highly effective COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. For HIV, similar vaccines may be able to produce a durable T-cell response that suppresses the virus.

“Amongst the many approaches that are now being explored, we feel that these show the greatest promise for being reduced to effective, safe, and accessible cures for HIV and SCD in the shortest period of time,” says McCune. “Of course, we always keep our eyes open and we are ready to pivot should a better approach emerge.”

In parallel with these two platforms, HIV Frontiers plans to develop a diagnostic test that uses circulating biomarkers in the body to predict how well a given intervention might suppress HIV in a patient. It’s also engaging with stakeholders in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to develop the infrastructure needed to ensure that any eventual interventions are accessible to all. As Turner aptly puts it, “At some point, it’s not enough to just understand the science. You really have to have that entire infrastructure laid out.”

Philanthropy’s Role

Central to the foundation’s approach is an emphasis on cross-sector partnerships. The hope, McCune explains, is that a diverse mix of partners—from research labs to healthcare clinics—will blend the complementary strengths needed to carry such work to completion. This includes partnerships with government entities like the National Institutes of Health, industry players like Novartis, and a growing number of collaborative efforts focused specifically on bringing gene therapies for HIV to LMICs.

In addition, McCune sees philanthropic partners filling a unique role in the work. “This work is not something that will attract traditional venture capital investment. It’s not something an academic lab funded by the NIH would do,” he says. “It’s simply too risky. This is where philanthropy comes in.”

As with many scientific breakthroughs, early support by philanthropy for basic research and proof-of-concept efforts can play an important role to convince government and corporate investors that the idea is worth carrying to scale. But early involvement by philanthropists does more than just de-risk an idea, it also ensures that the focus of the work and its application remain where it can have the greatest and most equitable health impact.

The Gates Foundation hopes the two platforms they’re exploring (in vivo gene therapy and therapeutic vaccination) will catalyze advances in treatments for myriad other diseases—many of which could prove more financially lucrative than a cure for HIV or SCD. To ensure that this potential doesn’t override the needs of LMICs, the foundation’s global access policy ensures that “products and information generated by foundation funding are made widely available at an affordable price, in sufficient volume, at a level of quality, and in a time frame that benefits the people we’re trying to help.”

The vision of a single-shot cure is undoubtedly audacious, but the foundation believes that—with the proper alignment of funding and partners—an intervention can reach clinical trials by 2032. To get there, the foundation is already laying the groundwork for delivery in LMICs and is working with partners toward multiple pre-clinical proofs of concept. By 2026, the program hopes to have narrowed the field down to its 2-3 most promising candidates, at which point they expect the risk profile of the investment will be sufficient to attract a combination of private and philanthropic investors.

If successful, HIV Frontiers promises not only to deliver a cure for a deadly disease but also a platform for further innovation and a model for how philanthropic partnerships can catalyze breakthroughs. Although Baltimore’s fear that HIV would become “one of the most difficult problems science had ever faced” proved true, programs like HIV Frontiers show that scientific discovery is up to the challenge when properly supported across sectors.

To learn more about HIV Frontiers, please contact Mike McCune ( You can also learn more about the Gates Foundation’s broader HIV strategy here.

Keck commits $1 million to Weill Cornell atomic microscopy project

July 7, 2022 9:48 am Published by Leave a comment

Weill Cornell Medicine has announced a three-year, $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to fund development of a next-generation high-speed atomic-force microscope (AFM) capable of capturing the dynamics of proteins in unprecedented detail. The project will be led by Simon Scheuring, a professor of physiology and biophysics in anesthesiology at Weill Cornell and director of the school’s Scheuring Bio-AFM-Lab, and will include researchers and scientists from Weill Cornell as well as collaborators from Rockefeller University, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Washington University in St. Louis. Read more about the grant and project here.