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Journey of a Philanthropist, Part III

Sue Merrilees is a senior advisor at the Science Philanthropy Alliance. This is the third post in a series documenting Ross Brown’s philanthropic journey. (Read Part I and Part II.)

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.