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Leaders in Science Philanthropy Share their Visions [Alliance blog]

Valerie Conn is executive director of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

The leaders of three major U.S. science foundations participated in a panel discussion at a Science Philanthropy Alliance meeting this summer. Bob Conn, president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation, Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Dan Linzer, president and CEO of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), shared their thoughts on the role of philanthropy in funding basic science and how their foundations are supporting scientific research.

The Role of Philanthropy

Conn, Falk, and Linzer spoke about the role that foundations and philanthropists play in funding basic science in relation to the government. Conn pointed out that while the scale of government funding is much larger than that of private philanthropy, “Philanthropy can do things that the government can’t or won’t.” He quoted founder Fred Kavli: “I don’t know what is going to come from basic research, but I know that eventually it will change the world.”

The Sloan Foundation’s president, Adam Falk, noted that Sloan focuses on areas where the foundation’s support can have a significant impact and, like The Kavli Foundation, they have a special interest in basic science. In its early days, Sloan supported the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. With the growth of the National Institutes of Health, Sloan shifted away from supporting medical research. “Our path changes as the environment changes,” said Falk.

RCSA’s Dan Linzer added, “The synergy [between government and private philanthropy] is not just in the dollars of support but in the ideas that are exchanged.” RCSA’s Scialog conferences, for example, focus on funding research that tries new things and takes risks. RCSA does not aim to be an ongoing source of support for research, but a resource to help launch it. The hope is that if the ideas and research take off, the government will then step in at a larger scale.

Falk agreed. On the importance of sustained government funding, “If I could change one thing, it would be that federal funding would be more consistent and better allow for long-term planning.”


from left to right: Bob Conn, The Kavli Foundation; Dan Linzer, Research Corporation for Science Advancement; and Adam Falk, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Foundations’ Focus

The three foundation leaders also talked about their foundations’ areas of focus. Falk said that the Sloan Foundation was particularly interested in young scientists and in the development of scientific careers. Their research fellowships support 126 scientists, providing them with resources to, for example, take sabbaticals so they can concentrate on their research or to explore emerging interdisciplinary fields.

RCSA also funds early-career scientists. Linzer shared that, through the Cottrell Scholarships, RCSA “makes bets on young people who are innovators in both their research and their teaching. Our bets won’t all pay off, but when they do, it’s really worthwhile.” RCSA is particularly interested in finding areas of intersection between scientific disciplines where the foundation can bring early career faculty together.

Unlike Sloan and RCSA, Kavli’s focus is on institutions. “We don’t do grants. Rather, we bet on institutions that focus on basic science. Institutions are motivated to stay relevant and to keep a field alive. Our funding gives them the flexibility to fill the gaps, and to complement government funding,” explained Conn. Kavli does not place constraints on the endowments they fund but allows the institution’s leadership to decide how to use it.

Vision for the Future

Over the next few years, all three foundations will continue to evolve and refine their programs. Falk shared that Sloan “will be looking at new areas of science funding as some existing programs wind down in the next couple of years. Another area of attention will be diversity in scientific research and encouraging more women and underrepresented minorities to enter and stay in science.” In addition to programs that directly support students and faculty from underrepresented groups, the foundation also promotes diversity in science through its support of publicly-visible projects such as the book Hidden Figures.

The Kavli Foundation is deeply involved in public education and diversity issues as well, added Conn, pointing out that four out of the seven Kavli Prize winners this year were women.

RCSA will continue to explore how to create a more collaborative environment in science. “What we’ve seen is a change in how science is conducted, from an individual effort to a more collaborative endeavor,” said Linzer. “There are opportunities across the sciences to bring together different approaches and different fields. It is a trend that has already paid off enormously and will continue to seed innovative science in the future.”

The questions of how and what to fund are just as complex for established foundations as for newcomers. To help leadership make sound decisions, all three foundations make extensive use of scientific advisory boards, meet with scientists, and convene meetings and workshops. The input of the scientific community is an important part of their decision-making.

Foundations that fund science play a critical role in our society, supporting research that may not otherwise be funded and research that may ultimately contribute to humanity. The Science Philanthropy Alliance thanks these foundation leaders for approaching their work thoughtfully, for including the community in their processes, and for their interest in exploring the deepest questions that teach us about the natural world.