The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced 20 grants totaling nearly $5 million aimed at empowering innovative, systemic change-focused partnerships between Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and other educational institutions to build, expand, or enhance effective, equitable pathways into STEM graduate study by Black, Indigenous, and Latina/o students. Read more about this landmark investment on Sloan’s website.
Author Archives for Jason Maier
The Science Philanthropy Alliance is thrilled to welcome its newest senior science advisor, Thomas R. Cech. Cech is a distinguished professor of biochemistry at University of Colorado Boulder and recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work with RNA. You can read more here about Cech’s background.
The Alliance’s esteemed senior science advisors lend their expertise to philanthropists investing in basic science. As accomplished researchers and leaders of distinguished institutions, they bring a wealth of experience with firsthand knowledge of how great research is done and how philanthropists can support it.
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative co-founders and co-CEOs Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg announced that they are doubling down on their commitment to accelerating biomedical science and advancing human health with an ambitious new effort to observe, measure, and analyze any biological process throughout the human body — across spatial scales and in real time. Read more on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative website.
In our year-long series on the influence of basic science on the world’s pandemic response, author Susan Reslewic Keatley explores how high-throughput technologies have sped up science in transformative ways. Stepwise tasks once done only by the deft hands of scientists, such as pipetting liquids from one test tube to another, have in recent history been transformed by high-throughput technologies. Now, in the time it takes a researcher to perform one precise action, these technologies can do the same hundreds if not thousands of times. When time is of the essence, as it is during a pandemic, high-throughput technologies unlock a level of speed and scale that was previously unimaginable.
Lorelle Espinosa, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and co-chair of the Alliance’s DEI shared interest group, recently wrote in Inside Philanthropy that “[Sloan] and others are responding to the fact that philanthropy is failing to rise to one of the most important challenges of our day, but that there is a way forward.” The foundation recently commissioned a report by Higher Ed Insight to examine recent public and private giving in STEM DEI higher education pathways.
For Issues in Science and Technology, the Sloan Foundation’s Evan Michelson and Adam Falk argue that, for philanthropy to shape science in the coming decades, it will need to adopt practices “that further the scientific enterprise while simultaneously helping to move society toward greater collective well-being.”
The Science Philanthropy Alliance is honored to welcome the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as its newest member. Since its founding in 2013 with six members, the Alliance has grown to include 34 philanthropic organizations, each with a shared dedication to supporting fundamental science.
“The Gates Foundation and the Alliance have long enjoyed a close partnership to encourage philanthropic giving and support emerging philanthropists interested in science. It’s a privilege to welcome them as members,” said Alliance president France Córdova. “The Alliance’s membership base is a testament to the growing community of funders who understand the importance of basic research, which expands our knowledge and often leads to world-changing innovation.”
Based in Seattle, the Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. This includes investments in discovery and translational sciences to catalyze innovation for transformative solutions to global health and development inequity. Like many of the Alliance’s members, the foundation does this, in part, by investing in promising-but-higher risk initiatives that may be overlooked by other funding sources.
Alliance members fund the organization’s core work to share best practices, convene leaders across science and philanthropy, and build a collaborative community of philanthropists dedicated to basic science. This includes no-cost advising services supported by preeminent scientists to assist philanthropists in their giving to science.
The Science Philanthropy Alliance announced today the addition of Fleming Crim, Ph.D., as a senior science advisor. Crim, who is the John E. Willard and Hilldale Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, previously served as chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Crim joins the Alliance’s four existing senior science advisors, each of whom lend their expertise to philanthropists investing in fundemental science.
During a 40-year career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Crim chaired the Chemistry Department and led research in chemical reaction dynamics, using laser preparation of selected quantum states to control the course of chemical reactions. Crim spent 2013–2017 as an assistant director at NSF where he led the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, overseeing programs in astronomy, chemistry, materials research, mathematics, and physics. He returned to NSF in 2018 to serve as COO for three years under Alliance president and then-NSF director France Córdova.
“In my time working with Fleming, I’ve been consistently impressed by his thoughtful, wide-ranging approach. He adds to the Alliance’s already-deep bench of preeminent senior science advisors, all of whom play an important role in supporting our members and advisees in their critical funding for basic scientific research,” said Córdova.
Crim has served on and led committees of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Physical Society (APS), and he chaired the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology of the National Academies. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as a fellow of the ACS, APS, and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Among other honors, Crim has received the Plyler Prize of the APS, the Langmuir Award of the ACS, and the Centenary Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry (London). Crim was awarded a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry from Southwestern University and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. He worked in the semiconductor industry and was a post-doctoral staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory prior to joining the University of Wisconsin.
As a part of Issues in Science and Technology’s series exploring the next 75 years of science policy, Alliance president France Córdova recently shared her view on how philanthropy can “nurture and sustain a scientific infrastructure that is both resilient and flexible.”
For the Fall 2021 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Alliance board member Elizabeth Good Christopherson joined other leaders in science philanthropy and communications to outline the need and opportunity for the two fields to cocreate a new era of partnership with communities of color.
For Issues in Science and Technology, Robert Conn, the Alliance’s founding board chair and former Kavli Foundation president and CEO, explains why philanthropy gives the American research enterprise a unique advantage. To capitalize on that, though, he argues “it is crucial that we understand and capitalize on philanthropy’s distinctive history, perspectives, and synergies….”
The Science Philanthropy Alliance is honored to welcome its newest member, the Dana Foundation. The private philanthropy is dedicated to advancing neuroscience within society by supporting cross-disciplinary intersections such as neuroscience and ethics, law, policy, humanities, and arts. The foundation joins 32 other Alliance members in their commitment to advancing basic research and supporting the broader science philanthropy community.
Dana Foundation president Caroline Montojo, Ph.D., has also been named to the Alliance’s advisory board. Prior to joining the foundation in 2021, Montojo was director of life sciences and the director of brain initiatives at The Kavli Foundation. She has been deeply involved in largescale neuroscience initiatives, including the U.S. BRAIN Initiative and the International Brain Initiative.
“I’ve seen firsthand how the Science Philanthropy Alliance adds value through its advising, convening, and ability to share best practices from around the science philanthropy community. I’m looking forward to contributing the Dana Foundation’s expertise to those conversations and learning from our peers in the Alliance,” said Montojo.
“Both Dr. Montojo and the Dana Foundation have been at the forefront of philanthropy’s growing interest in neuroscience and brain health,” said Alliance president France A. Córdova, Ph.D. “Given Dr. Montojo’s expertise and the foundation’s legacy of work in neuroscience, we’re delighted to have them join the Alliance as philanthropic momentum builds for investment in science.”
To learn more about the Dana Foundation, please visit www.dana.org.
The Science Philanthropy Alliance’s board today announced the selection of Dr. France A. Córdova as Alliance president. Dr. Córdova, who begins in the role effective immediately, previously served as a senior science advisor for the Alliance after completing her six-year term as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2020.
“Dr. Córdova’s appointment as Alliance president,” remarked Harvey V. Fineberg, chair of the Alliance board and president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, “heralds a new era in support of science through private philanthropy. Dr. Córdova is a role model for a rising generation of scientists. Her record of achievement and experience as a leader for science in academia and government make her ideally equipped to lead the organization.”
“I am delighted to take up the presidency of the Science Philanthropy Alliance,” said Dr. Córdova. “There has never been a more important time for private philanthropy to step up to opportunities for discovery in basic science and to innovate in the search for solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time.”
In 2014, President Barack Obama nominated and the U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Córdova as the fourteenth director of NSF. Prior to that appointment, Dr. Córdova served as president of Purdue University, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, and as a member and chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents.
Earlier in her career, Dr. Córdova was a deputy group leader in the Earth and Space Sciences Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was the first woman to be appointed chief scientist at NASA, was head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, and was vice chancellor for research and professor of physics at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her scientific contributions focus on observational and experimental astrophysics, multi-spectral research on x-ray and gamma ray sources, and space-based instrumentation.
Dr. Córdova earned a B.A. from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology. She has garnered many accolades and awards during her career, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the agency’s highest honor, the Women in Space Science Award from the Adler Planetarium, being named one of 80 Elite Hispanic Women by Hispanic Business Magazine, and receiving numerous honorary degrees. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, regent emerita of the Smithsonian Institution, and a distinguished fellow of the Council on Competitiveness. She chairs the Board of Trustees of the American Institute of Physics Foundation and serves on Caltech’s Board of Trustees.
Decades before the COVID-19 pandemic, basic science researchers were laying the groundwork for lifesaving breakthroughs now central to the world’s pandemic response. With support from the Kavli Foundation and the Simons Foundation, the Science Philanthropy Alliance enlisted a team of writers to explore these science origin stories in a new series: The COVID-19 Basic Science Prequels. Each month, the series will unpack the people, history, and serendipitous discovery behind topics that now dominate our daily lives—from masks and vaccines to PCR and omics.
We’re kicking off the series with a Q&A with Dr. Tony Fauci about the importance of basic science for pandemic preparedness and the unique role philanthropy can play to support it. We’re also launching with stories that look at the basic science behind masks, unpack what we know—and don’t know—about the viral world, and explore the evolutionary arms race between viruses and humans.
As an alliance of basic science funders, we’re proud of philanthropy’s contribution to this fundamental work. We hope this series will not only pay homage to past basic scientific research, but also inspire investments to ensure that this foundation for innovation remains strong for decades to come.
In a year full of changes and challenges for the basic science community, one thing has not shifted: Ross Brown’s determination to advance his philanthropic plan. This month, his perseverance paid off with the announcement of the two inaugural recipients of the Brown Investigator Award, David Hsieh of Caltech and William Irvine of the University of Chicago. It is a significant milestone in a journey he started with the Science Philanthropy Alliance nearly three years ago.
I’ve chronicled this journey in a series of blogs posts, the first of which traced Ross’s methodical process from idea to exploration and analysis (and even more exploration and analysis, reflecting his engineering background) after he reached out to the Alliance in May 2018. In part two, Ross made a “test gift” that increased by two the 2019 cohort in The Lucile and David Packard Foundation’s esteemed fellowship program. The program’s leadership allowed him to embed in the selection process as an observer, which proved to be an invaluable experience. Along the way, his foundation joined the Alliance as an associate member, he continued to explore the Alliance’s resources, and he engaged with its network.
By the end of 2019, Ross had defined the vision for his investigator program: to support stellar mid-career researchers working across fundamental chemistry as well as atomic and condensed matter physics. Most important, these researchers must have demonstrated a scientific vision and willingness to take risk that would be hindered without the unrestricted philanthropic dollars Ross could offer. Such a proposal exemplified Ross’s initial concept to encourage “the restless minds.”
Ross had articulated a vision—difficult and soul-searching work on its own. Now came the time for turning that vision into action. It began with the formation of a science advisory board.
Identifying Expertise and Cultural Alignment
At the beginning of 2020, Marc Kastner had stepped down as president of the Alliance, but remained with the organization as a senior science advisor. Ross had already come to closely rely on Marc’s counsel, which he credits as a driving force in the Brown Investigator Award’s formation. It seemed a natural choice, then, for Marc to chair the program’s science advisory board (SAB).
Forming an SAB is one of the structural recommendations the Alliance makes to funders looking to support science in a less reactive, more strategic way. Ross was well-versed in philanthropy, even in supporting science, but this was a new program giving proactively to an underfunded area. He decided an SAB was essential.
Through the identification and recruitment of potential SAB members, Ross and Marc’s strengths complemented each other’s. Ross’s previous philanthropic outreach had given him an idea of the scientific outlook and personal qualities he respected. Marc had decades of experience at elite research institutions, so understood well the culture and academic structures. Marc also had a broad network across key physics departments. From that network and from Ross’s contacts and industrial background, they identified five other experts to form a six-member SAB of chemists and physicists, three from each field. Although diverse and dispersed across the U.S. at elite research institutions, these candidates were alike in their high level of seniority and academic accomplishments.
After reaching out via e-mail and phone to confirm the candidates’ interest, Marc and Ross began face-to-face recruitment in the early months of 2020, travelling to meet each candidate as conveniently as possible. These in-person interviews turned out to be particularly important to build rapport as imminent pandemic restrictions forced the group to do their work virtually.
Developing the Program and Processes
Over the first several months of 2020, Ross and the SAB deliberated about how best to structure the Brown Investigator Award program. Through the process, Ross was down to the detail yet also open to the SAB’s counsel, deferring to them early and often.
Marc noted that early in the process Ross shared with the SAB an Excel spreadsheet with numerous laser-specific questions on the process and details of the program. For example:
- Should the grants include a separate funding application for equipment?
- Should funding for graduate students be included as part of the funding package?
- Should the SAB chemists only review the chemistry-applicants and the SAB physicists only the physics-applicants?
- To make just two awards, how many universities should receive the request for nomination?
- Who at the institutions should receive the request?
Marc attributed this attention to detail to the many lessons Ross took from working with Packard. “You can see the influence of his experience with the Packard fellowship program,” Marc said. “It gave Ross an opportunity to learn a great deal not only about how to review the candidates—but to review how they will be reviewed.”
Ross also prized ideas that were unlikely to attract funding through conventional sources. “There may be two proposals,” he said, “both of which are intriguing and truly scientifically interesting, but we want to enable these bright minds to propose something they’d like to explore, as opposed to what’s fundable.”
When it came to defining a restless mind, the SAB deliberated for weeks—was there an appropriate series of metrics, such as a scorecard for evaluating proposals and applicants? They eventually settled into the consensus that “they will know it when they see it.”
Capturing this elusive quality meant Ross himself took on the task of drafting the request for nominations letter. He added a plea at the end: “The very nature of activities not funded by conventional sources implies a line of inquiry, which while high risk, may result in some new insight or technique. Please help us find that mind!”
As Marc observed, the personal and passionate nature of the letter differentiated it from the standard boilerplate language one may expect from such invitations. By November, they had received 10 nominees submitted by top research universities across the U.S—three in chemistry, six in physics, and one dual-field applicant.
“I am really pleased with the SAB,” Ross said upon reflection. “They seem to be a diverse and thoughtful group that rubs along together very well, which relieves a fair amount of angst. And they did a great job of defining the program.”
Keeping it Lean, Administratively Speaking
Ross had come away from his experience at the Packard foundation impressed by many aspects of its operation. He particularly valued the relatively minimalistic approach as it aligned with his vision and his desire to keep overhead minimal. After all, he noted, “Everything spent on overhead, does not get spent on research.” He observed that, despite its success, the Packard program seemed like it was run by “one-and-a-half” people.
In addition to the Alliance’s support, the SAB, Ross’s legal team, and some part-time administrative staff, Ross essentially was that one person for the Brown Investigator Award. Given his exacting mind and standards, I believe he wanted to experience fully all parts of the process to understand in detail what was required, especially in this early stage. Over time, Ross intends to expand the program to selecting eight investigators annually.
While I was not privy to the deliberations of the SAB, the first review of the 10 nominees halved those applicants, and the remaining five were asked to interview with the SAB. In February, the SAB delivered their final recommendations to Ross, he accepted their choices, the successful (and unsuccessful) universities were notified, and all were graciously thanked.
With the inaugural cohort of Brown Investigators chosen and announced, focus now turns to setting up the program for long-term success as it targets at least eight recipients per year by 2025. The Alliance looks forward to supporting Ross on this new phase of his journey.