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Models for Basic Science Philanthropy [Alliance blog post]

There are as many ways to do science philanthropy as there are science philanthropists. At a recent Science Philanthropy Alliance event, cohosted with UC Berkeley and the Heising-Simons Foundation, a panel of representatives from foundations shared their perspectives and practices.

Mark Heising, cofounder of the Heising-Simons Foundation, moderated a panel with Heising-Simons director of science Cyndi Atherton, Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation president Ron Rosequist, and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation chief program officer for science Robert Kirshner. As Heising pointed out, the three foundations are in three different stages of evolution, with the Curci Foundation, which got its start about ten years ago, as the youngest foundation; the Heising-Simons Foundation, established in 2007 during its “teenage years”; and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, founded in 2000 and whose founders had been giving prior to this date, as the “grown-up” of the three.

left to right: Mark Heising, Heising-Simons Foundation; Cyndi Atherton, Heising-Simons Foundation; Bob Kirshner, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; and Ron Rosequist, Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation

The Youngster

According to Rosequist, the Curcis started their philanthropy about ten years ago, when Shurl and Kay Curci decided that they wanted to give the bulk of their wealth to medical research. At the beginning, the Curcis, with input from their board, were giving away a few $100,000 grants, but with little process in choosing grant awardees. Rosequist suggested that they should explore a more methodical process for selecting grantees, for when their giving will eventually scale up to a much larger amount.

The first step was to articulate their mission. The Curcis started with eight pages, which they eventually distilled into a two-paragraph mission statement.

The foundation also had the luxury of time to explore its sweet spot for giving. Rosequist, a nonscientist, set about to learn as much as he could about scientific areas of interest to the Curcis. He initially called a neurosurgeon friend to get educated about neuroscience. His friend disabused him of the idea that surgeons are scientists and instead sent him to talk to actual neuroscientists. Fortunately, he had the benefit of advice from UCSF and Stanford neurosurgeon-scientists as well. Rosequist’s self-education model was to give $200,000 grants, to which was attached a requirement to help educate Rosequist about their field. Rosequist also had the fortune of being mentored by Robert Tjian, a UC Berkeley professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, former president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and founding member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. “I would give Tij some tips about fly-fishing, and in turn, he would give me lessons on philanthropy,” Rosequist said.

Rosequist also got involved with the Science Philanthropy Alliance, attending early meetings of the group. “I, and my board members who attended some Alliance meetings, learned a lot from those meetings,” he said. “If the Alliance had existed when we were just getting started, they could have helped a lot.” He has since been called on by the Alliance several times to meet with new philanthropists who are in the position he was in ten years ago.

Rosequist says that today the Curci foundation gives away $2.5 million a year, some of that in partnership with the Life Sciences Research Foundation and assisted by a scientific advisory board that includes Jennifer Doudna from UC Berkeley, Marianne Bronner from Caltech, Gerald Crabtree from Stanford, and computer scientist Jim Mitchell. The Curci Foundation now works with six universities, always keeping close to its mission statement.

“We have two rules,” noted Rosequist. “If the NIH will fund it, we won’t. And we invite applications; we don’t take them over the transom.”

The Teenager

When Cyndi Atherton joined the Heising-Simons Foundation five years ago, “there was lots of white space,” she said. “Mark and Liz had done some work on their own, but there was pent-up demand in the physical sciences and in climate change science, and in astronomy and cosmology in particular. We borrowed the idea of doing scientist roundtables on specific topics from the Simons Foundation, and started to focus on subfields where there were a limited number of researchers so that we could have more of an impact.”

The result of this work was the foundation’s support for axion dark matter research. “In this field, there were just five groups doing research, so we could convene them and understand what the government was not funding. We’ve approached other fields in the same way—paleoclimatology, for example, which is also not a big field—so it allowed us to have more of an impact,” said Atherton. “At one roundtable, we asked the scientists what they would do if funding was not an issue, and from that we crafted a portfolio of about a dozen grants.”

This process has turned out to be the Heising-Simons Foundation’s model for funding “white space.” “We look at an area, bring experts together, and ask our advisory board to bring in ideas. We work to understand where the field is, what the federal government is doing, and what our role might be,” said Atherton. “We’ve done this now for condensed matter physics, cold atomic physics, astronomy, and climate change science.”

The Grown-up

In contrast to the Curci Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Bob Kirshner came into the Moore Foundation when it already had an established program. The founders are still alive and very influential, so taking over a preexisting program meant working with the founder.

“Fortunately, the Moore Foundation already had good taste,” said Kirshner, citing his personal knowledge of some of the Moore Foundation’s grantees from Harvard, where Kirshner was a faculty member in the astronomy department before he joined the foundation. “To continue to find good people without a call for proposals, I rely on our program staff who are very knowledgeable, alert, and know what’s going on in the field,” he said.

Kirshner also highlighted the Statement of Founders’ Intent, which he describes as “like the Constitution to us. We are lucky to have this document, which our founders wrote a few years ago, that outlines what we should do and not do. Gordon and Betty wrote this with the thought that the foundation, which is meant to operate in perpetuity, won’t be the same 50 years from now. They also believed that the rate of knowledge can be increased by funding areas that don’t fit conventional funding sources,” he explained.

The statement also includes filters for selecting what the foundation should support:

  1. Is it important?
  2. Can we make an enduring difference?
  3. Is it measurable?
  4. Does it contribute to a portfolio effect?

Kirshner also discussed the foundation’s science advisory board and the belief at the foundation that doing things at scale is better than doing a lot of little things. “This is why we have initiatives that focus on a specific field at the scale of $100 million over six-to-eight years. We have initiatives in marine microbiology, in quantum materials, in data science, as well as a commitment supporting the Thirty Meter Telescope,” he said.

Risk: A Positive for Science Foundations

Heising also asked the panel if their foundations thought of risk as a positive or a negative characteristic in potential grantees. Atherton claimed that the Heising-Simons Foundation likes to view it as a positive. “For example, with our axion dark matter grants, our outside reviewers highlighted one scientist as a really great scientist but whose ideas were risky. We didn’t know if this person would succeed, but we went for it,” she explained.

Kirshner expanded on Atherton’s comments. “Working with government agencies is like jujitsu. We are small, they are large, so we look for ways we can affect what they do by adroitly applying the modest forces we can bring to bear,” he said. Kirshner cited the example of a project to make coatings for mirrors that could make the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) twice as good. “LIGO was a billion dollar NSF investment, but the NSF had its hands full just running it, so the Moore Foundation provided funding that will make those mirror coatings available in time for the next LIGO upgrade,” he explained.

Ultimately, philanthropy plays a critical role in funding science, one that is distinct from the role of government. As Atherton noted, “The NSF answers to the taxpayers; they have to show progress. We don’t. Our goal is new knowledge.”