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More than the Sum of its Parts: The Many Benefits of Public-Private Partnerships

Emblazoned across a wall at one Alliance member’s headquarters is the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” For science philanthropists looking to maximize the impact of their investments, the spirit of this saying is reflected in their growing interest in public-private partnerships (PPPs). By combining the complementary strengths of philanthropy and government, funders in both sectors are realizing the transformative impact of these partnerships.

In May, the Alliance hosted leaders from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to help members understand the Biden administration’s science agenda and what role it sees philanthropy playing. “We’re at a once-in-a-generation moment for transformation,” said Kei Koizumi, acting director and chief of staff at OSTP. “To meet that moment, I think the U.S. government and the philanthropic community need to work together more closely than ever before.”

But willingness alone doesn’t make a PPP work. To dig deeper into how to craft and make the most of these partnerships, the Alliance convened in August a members’ salon featuring Simons Foundation President David Spergel and Kumar Garg, senior managing director and head of partnerships at Schmidt Futures. The discussion was moderated by Alliance President France Córdova, who lent her own expertise as the former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Drawing on their experience across government, philanthropy, and academia, the speakers encouraged members to rethink some of the traditional notions about working with government.

“When we think about partnerships, joint funding often comes to mind,” said Spergel, but informal collaborations can also prove successful. “I think we’re being partners when we identify areas where the federal government cannot easily invest and we can make those investments. Sometimes philanthropic funding can be about de-risking projects.” For example, philanthropic seed funding can act as a catalyst to draw follow-on funding from the government. Though the two sectors may not formally work together, this touchpoint still offers an opportunity to collaborate around aligned interests.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory under construction atop Cerro Pachón in the Chilean Andes as of September, 2021. (Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA/O. Rivera)

A good example of this was the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, now part of the Rubin Observatory. Philanthropic investments first funded the telescope’s mirror in 2008 and, once completed, prompted the National Academies Astronomy Decadal Survey to identify the continuation of the project as a top priority. Spurred by the initial private investment, the project became an NSF-Department of Energy (DOE) partnership. “It really advanced the project at least three or four years to have had the [mirror] started with philanthropic funding,” said Spergel.

Building on this, Garg—who worked in OSTP during the Obama administration prior to joining Schmidt Futures—underscored the importance of thinking about PPPs in terms of complementary strengths. For example, philanthropy’s ability to de-risk a project can be complemented by government’s ability to scale, especially given its spending power. “If you just look at basic R&D, philanthropic sector giving pales in comparison to basic R&D investments the [federal] government is making in the U.S. alone,” said Garg. Government also provides follow-on capital to basic R&D and often serves as a large customer that gives commercial projects traction.

Philanthropy can also look for opportunities to provide nimbleness and flexibility that government agencies might not otherwise have. This was the case during the development of the NSF-Simons Centers for Mathematics of Complex Biological Systems. “We were able to provide funding for the centers in ways it was more difficult for NSF to fund, through fewer rules on things like supporting visitors, conferences, administration, [and] postdocs,” said Spergel. “The goal [of partnership] is really to enable the kind of transformative science that we couldn’t do when working on our own,” added Spergel. NSF was able to bring the projects rapidly to scale, but also brought connections, expertise, and access to a broader community. “The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. We were able to create something that has been successful and impactful.”

For its part, the government also brings to the table a unique convening power and the ability to align multiple players around common goals. This was on display with the formation of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative—a PPP created during the Obama administration with support from the Kavli Foundation and Simons Foundation, among others. Garg noted that “it was easier to bring public sector, philanthropy, and a range of other actors together if you could put an overall frame or large initiative that the White House or other folks were championing.”

To ensure that such partnerships are successful, many members emphasized clear communication about expectations at the outset, and the importance of establishing mutual trust, which include personal relationships between colleagues in the different partner organizations. “You’ve heard this expression, ‘you move at the speed of trust,’” said Brooke Smith, director of public engagement with science at the Kavli Foundation, who oversaw the establishment of the Science Public Engagement Partnership (SciPEP) program. “The trust that needed to be built between our foundation and the [DOE] and the individual people that are involved mattered a lot.”

While no two PPPs look exactly alike, the importance of building relationships, finding mutual interests, and leveraging complementary strengths stood out as common threads in all the examples discussed by Spergel, Garg, and other members. Given the strong member interest in PPPs, the Alliance plans to prioritize the topic in 2022 by creating resources to assist philanthropy and government in forging partnerships.

This article first appeared in the Alliance’s 2021 Annual Report. You can read the full report here.