Journey of a Philanthropist, Part IV
In the spring of 2018, when philanthropist Ross Brown first entered the offices of the Science Philanthropy Alliance (Alliance) seeking advice on making impactful investments in science philanthropy, the outcome of his philanthropic journey was unpredictable and seemed very much in the future. However, his quest to contribute the majority of his fortune to basic science was always driven by that end goal.
In three prior blog posts, I chronicled Ross’s journey through months of consulting, analysis and then, three years of operation and implementation. At the end of the last post, the Ross Brown Foundation had established the Brown Investigators Award and selected an inaugural cohort of two in 2021. In 2022, the program doubled the number of recipients to four, and in 2023, to seven. The awards were generous, unrestricted and five years in duration, for mid-career chemists and physicists who had “restless minds” focused on discovery science.
Last month, I caught up with Ross for the novel culmination of his philanthropic journey.
Once the investigators program was up and running, Ross shifted to designing an effective long term governance structure. He continued to talk to other foundation leaders among the Alliance membership, concluding, “What stood out to me was really troubling, that is the likelihood of mission drift once a donor and a donor’s family were gone. There was no corrective mechanism.” Ross had always been concerned about this issue, one reason he favored a spend-down strategy. He was also concerned that the lack of such a mechanism could lead to trustees and staff devoting more money to administration rather than supporting science.
He brought up his worries during a 2021 lunch with one of the Alliance’s founding Science Advisors, David Baltimore, who acknowledged the challenge, but observed, “Your area of focus is so narrow, and resources relatively modest,” so that if Ross could identify an institution whose interests were similarly aligned, that could lessen the chance of mission drift. David did not mention Caltech, but his remark resonated with Ross, who decided to explore the idea with a few educational institutions he had worked with previously. Ross quickly realized that Caltech was the natural choice. He attributed his choice not to “boosterism” (he received his BS and MS degrees there), but because, “I had observed it for over 70 years, and it was remarkably unchanged.”
A Unique Solution
Ross began meeting with Caltech Provost David Tirrell in earnest, to address two essential questions, designing incentives fair enough for Caltech to take on the program’s operation, and ensuring safeguards were in place to prevent mission drift.
David had been an important sounding board during the program’s implementation phase, and during that time, had developed a clear understanding of what Ross wanted to accomplish. He agreed that the program was “an important one, and unique,” and something that “Caltech would like to support and that could be operated in a way to benefit the scientific community broadly.”
David noted, “We did have to balance multiple objectives, which is why the negotiations took the time that they did. Mostly, I think we agreed in principle how we wanted to do it.”
True to his past explorations, Ross asked every question imaginable, and took time to analyze the answers. After nearly two years of discussion, in November of 2023, he and Caltech designed an agreement “without precedent,” according to David and Marc Kastner, Chair of Ross’s Science Advisory Committee and an External Science Advisor of the Alliance. This agreement gave the majority of Ross’s fortune ($400M) to Caltech, to operate the investigator program until 2070.
Tying a percentage of the awards made to annual discretionary funding to Caltech in Chemistry and Physics, and providing administrative costs, including paying for an annual symposium, helped alleviate the “opportunity costs” of not being eligible to apply for the program. At least eight investigators will be named every year. If the fund decreases below a certain amount, Caltech is allowed to end the program and retain any principal that remains.
To address mission drift, the Provost and the Chairs of the Chemistry and Physics Departments were appointed to supervise the program, and to prepare an annual program report to the Caltech board, with a “pledge of compliance.” Every five years, like a department, independent, external reviewers would evaluate the direction to ensure adherence to the original intent. David summed up Caltech’s stewardship as, “We don’t get directly involved in selecting investigators, that’s the job of the advisory board. We’ll organize the annual symposium and just make sure the program stays safe. That’s our obligation.”
In July of 2023, Marc attended one of the final negotiations. David noted, “Marc was very helpful in clarifying for Ross and his associates the nature of Caltech’s involvement, and why it would be a positive thing. I was doing my best to make those same arguments, but you know, Marc was unconflicted, and I was clearly conflicted.”
Dexter Bailey, Jr., Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Relations, another participant in the discussions, said, “I think Ross’s trust in Caltech and Provost Tirrell’s leadership is what allowed this to happen.” He also emphasized the value of building community among the investigators and Caltech. “It’s exciting to think about managing this program and interfacing with scientists around the country who are expanding the boundaries of discovery.”
Ross, Marc and David all hope that “this model could perhaps be replicated by other funders who don’t want to build a big operation.”
Three Year’s In: Impact
Ross suggested I contact recipients from the various cohorts to find out how the award had impacted them, both professionally and personally. While the 2023 Investigators have yet to begin their work, several could describe changes they had already made. Mircea Dinca (MIT 2023), said, “It’s already allowed me to think differently about how many students I will take on next year–and they’ve all accepted!” He added, “When you have these ideas that are not easy to fund, taking on students is an extremely risky proposition.”
Mircea had also done his homework on the Brown Family Foundation but couldn’t uncover much of an online presence. “It added to the mystique.” He was impressed to discover the program was led by only one and half staff members. True to his preference for lean operations, Ross and his former assistant were managing the program, with assistance from Marc, the Science Advisory Committee, and the Alliance staff (mostly press releases and continued connections from the latter).
David Nagib (2023 OSU), commented on the rare opportunity offered by the targeted career phase (mid-career, post tenure), “In the beginning, you get your startup [package]. You can do whatever you want. No one will judge you whether things hit or not. But in this middle stage, if you want to renew your grants, you just have to keep churning out more discoveries in the same areas. But, upon reflection during the pandemic and post-pandemic period, I really did want to go in a new direction.” He added, “Personally, I was super honored and thrilled to represent Midwest public schools.”
For Anastassia Alexandrova (2023 UCLA), “Most importantly, it [the program] allows me to work on a very fresh idea that has minimal preliminary data, was risky, and there was no normal funding route for it.” The support also attracted fellows to her laboratory. “It’s definitely new. Chemistry students are drawn to fundamentals also, while trying to have a practical impact. It’s difficult to find that combination, to strike that balance, which this project allows us to do.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of the Brown Investigators received Packard Foundation fellowships at the start of their careers. Holger Mueller (2023 UC-Berkeley and 2009 Packard Fellow) commented that the Packard award “was the best thing that happened to me when I was an assistant professor because of the flexibility. It enabled my research to grow in many unexpected ways. And so, with a little bit of luck, maybe it happens again.”
The 2022 and 2021 Investigators contributed a mix of reflection and projection.
Hemamala Karunadasa (2022 Stanford), especially appreciated the flexibility and the “hands-off” attitude/approach of the awards. She commented, “This type of funding structure is really great for giving a researcher time to understand a tough problem and pursue that challenge in the five-year time scale, as opposed to having milestones to meet every year. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Having welcomed Ross to her laboratory last year, she was particularly excited to share new developments with him, “We’ve made a lot of headway and it’s funny as this proposal was rejected by every government institution!”
William Irvine (2021 University of Chicago), observed, “We often lose track of the foundational basics. You need time, you need to waste some of that time, you need to be able to concentrate, you need to manage the stress levels and the dynamics of the whole team. You need to be able to just think about what’s really interesting and what’s really important, without producing an immediate output.” He was also pleased that his laboratory had attracted a fellow with their own funding from Alliance member Schmidt Futures.
Tanya Zelevinsky (2022 Columbia) speculated that the award played a role both in the increase of university support and number of student applicants. “Space is a very important factor for experimentalists. I think an award like this does encourage universities to think more about helping their PIs with that and with other resources. And while it’s not only related to this award, from last year to this year, I see about
David Hsieh (2021 Caltech), from the first cohort, was excited to see how the program had built momentum in a relatively short time. “Because it’s such a unique opportunity, there’s really a buzz in the community. When the calls go out, it stimulates blue-sky thinking amongst the nominees.” For his own research, “It’s had a tremendous impact. I changed the direction of my group to focus on a promising but high-risk new idea.”
He also wanted Ross to know, “I’m just doing the science now!” referring to the oft-lamented estimates that researchers spent more time grant-writing than in the laboratory.
A Question of Legacy
Just after the gift was announced, I contacted Ross to see how he was feeling. Although his decision had been carefully considered and years in the making, he revealed he hadn’t had a chance to reflect on legacy, other than feeling a sense of relief that the process was complete and would not pose a burden to his family.
“It stirs up all kinds of emotions. It helps that I never thought of it as my money—I was just the custodian.” I was used to encouraging Ross to recognize his intention, dedication and relatively quick decisions were remarkable, and to provide context for this effort in the philanthropic world. As it turned out, his gift would be tied for the third largest in 2023, with the other top gifts coming from multibillionaires. While many wealthy philanthropists struggle to align the pace of their giving to their increasing fortunes, Ross reached his end goal in just five years.
As for the tangible impact of this generosity, I reminded him that by 2070, he will have provided generous and unrestricted money to hundreds of carefully vetted scientists, at a prime time in their professional lives, seeding opportunities for exploration that could help counter existential threats posed by climate change and pandemics. This investment will likely be world-changing—at a time when the world is very much in need of change. That is quite a meaningful legacy.
While Ross was looking forward to the first annual symposium of the Brown Investigators in February, I reached out to him for final words of wisdom for new and emerging donors like him. As he has reiterated throughout, ‘Get connected to the Alliance. Then get someone like Marc and get him invested.” And finally, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Ross’s journey is complete, but his legacy, and his enjoyment of it, is just beginning.
Sue Merrilees, 2024