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How Covid-19 Has Driven Philanthropists to Change Lanes [Valerie Conn blog]

Science philanthropy is like a road trip. You pick a lane of scientific endeavor that you are passionate about—it could be climate change, energy storage, neuroscience, ocean science, or the like. This is a lane where there are big problems to solve, so you stick with that lane for the long haul through years, even decades, of sustained funding. And over time, you cover meaningful ground: you establish programs, launch cutting-edge laboratories, or even end up funding a discovery that for generations will affect how we detect disease, how we conserve an ecosystem, how we build a battery, or how we grow our food.

Investing in scientific discovery is good for humanity, but rarely immediately good for the bottom line. It is a high-risk financial endeavor that requires much trial and error, with multiple shots on goal until reaching a breakthrough. That’s where private funding comes in. Philanthropists can go on a financially-risky road trip to fund discovery-driven research in a way that public funding cannot.

For decades, philanthropists have taken long-term risks for generational, long-term rewards. And at the Science Philanthropy Alliance, we have worked for the last five years to advise those funders on basic science projects, on how to navigate their lanes of scientific choice.

But today, Covid-19 has remapped those road trips. For an all-hands-on-deck crisis such as an urgent public health catastrophe, what role exists for long-term, basic science to play—and for the funders who support it, who may currently work outside the lane of infectious disease?

The Need for Basic Science in an Acute Crisis

We live in a world that basic science built—the long-term funding decisions made years and decades ago that have led to the discoveries that shape our lives today. Here’s an example that might strike home. Fifty years ago, the scientific community invested in basic research that led to genetic sequencing technology, an essential first step to develop a vaccination for a virus, such as for SARS-Cov-2, which causes Covid-19.

Insufficient funding to the basic sciences in the 1970s would mean no genome sequencing, thus no rapid development for a vaccine today. What this tells us: investing in basic science during a pandemic is in fact a long-term solution to a long-term problem. SARS-CoV-2 is the third coronavirus we have seen in the last two decades, and the science behind our solutions to Covid-19 will expand our tool kit to prevent and respond to future pandemics. This same frame applies to the need for preventive care for issues ranging from climate change to Alzheimer’s, which basic science research can fund.

Thankfully, philanthropies have stepped up by changing lanes to navigate these challenging times.

 Changing Lanes—And Even Direction

This summer, after the initial shock of the pandemic and quarantine had settled into a new routine for our lives, we surveyed our Alliance members and the funder community to get a sense for how the pandemic affected their decision-making. Over 90% surveyed had in fact funded Covid-19-related efforts since the pandemic began, and made other accommodations such as extending their funding to grantees that had been set to expire during the pandemic. Of those who have funded Covid-19-related efforts, half intend to do so through the second half of 2020, and nearly a third said they would continue beyond then.

In our survey, we observed that funders had shifted their funding strategy in three different ways. 

  1. Staying in their Lane—Yet Investing More

We learned that several of our funders stayed in their lane—and not because they did not want to fund biomedical research, but because they already were! Many of the ones who do fund biomedical research expanded their funding portfolio to include funding research related to the pandemic.

  1. Changing Lanes for the Short-Term

We were heartened to learn that four foundations with a physical-sciences focus temporarily changed lanes to fund primarily local organizations, supporting an array of grants to areas such as vulnerable populations, public health infrastructure, and nearby medical centers. After stepping up to support their community during the pandemic, these non-biomedically-oriented foundations plan to settle back into their previous physical sciences program lane.

  1. Permanent Change for the Long Haul

Our survey showed that several foundations will permanently change lanes because of the pandemic. At least eight foundations plan to expand into infectious disease research funding—either by building on existing programs or establishing infectious disease as a new funding priority area. This news is particularly heartening because this shift in reaction to the pandemic

would nearly double the number of organizations in our survey funding infectious disease research, from 10 to 18.

How the Alliance Is Helping Navigate These Lane Changes: An Infectious Disease Working Group

To meet this emerging demand for shifting lanes to fund more basic science infectious disease research, we have created a working group of 20 experts to focus on the short-term scientific priorities for overcoming the current crisis, and to take a longer perspective on what is urgently needed research breakthroughs to prevent future pandemics. Chaired by our senior science advisor and former Princeton University president, microbiologist Shirley Tilghman, this working group will take a laser focus on the areas where nimble philanthropic funding to basic sciences can help us respond to Covid-19 and prepare for the coronaviruses to come.

As is our custom, and in response to the funders surveyed, we will continue to convene peer-to-peer meetings about COVID-19 research, providing Alliance members and other funders an opportunity to learn together what the gaps in scientific research are, and to drive down the highway of infectious disease basic research discovery, together.