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Philanthropy: A Critical Player in Supporting Scientific Research [Alliance blog]

Marc Kastner is president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

As former dean of science at MIT and now as president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to support the best, most innovative science. The role that various funders, including government, industry, academia, and philanthropy play in funding scientific research is thus very important to me.

Three authors have recently published books questioning philanthropists’ influence in our society. David Callahan, author of “The Givers,” discusses the sway of big philanthropy. Anand Giriharadas, author of “Winners Take All,” says that philanthropy may simply be a way for the rich to preserve the status quo. Rob Reich, in “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better,” considers how philanthropy can undermine democratic values.

What about philanthropic funding of scientific research? Is science philanthropy, and specifically philanthropy to support basic science, as negative a story as these authors claim for philanthropy as a whole? My experience tells me that this is not the case, that philanthropy plays a critical role in funding science.

Philanthropists contribute support for 44% of basic science research at universities and non-profit research institutes.

Let’s first review how much funding for basic science at universities and non-profit research institutes comes from philanthropists. Basic science is the fundamental, discovery science that feeds the pipeline to applied science; in the long run, basic science is the only hope of finding answers to the challenges facing humanity, such as climate change, disease, and famine. Philanthropists contribute in two distinct ways. One is legacy philanthropy, in which they give endowed and expendable gifts to universities or research institutes. Investment income from these endowments funds a variety of university activities; for example, they provide funds for new researchers to start their laboratories. The other is directed-use grants which philanthropists designate for specific projects. Only for the latter can the philanthropist have direct control over what projects are funded, by determining the specific project to be funded.

The National Science Foundation provides data on the sources of funding for basic research at research institutions. In 2016, $11.7 billion in basic science expenditures at universities came from the university’s own funds, mostly from endowments, which universities control. At non-profit research institutes, $7 billion of expenditures for basic science research also came mostly from endowments, which are under the institutes’ control. The directed-use grants from philanthropy totaled $4B. All in all, philanthropy is very important, funding $22.7 billion, or 44%, of basic scientific research conducted at universities and research institutions in 2016. With federal funding for basic science (as a percentage of GDP) on the decline since 2005, this support has been welcome indeed.

Philanthropists direct less than 8% of basic science research funds at universities and research institutions.

Decisions on how to allocate university endowments are made, not by philanthropists, but by university leadership. Of course, philanthropists can, and usually do, suggest preferences on how the administrators use their gifts, but final decisions on whether expenditures are appropriate are made by the universities. The same goes for endowment gifts to nonprofit research institutes.

Philanthropists can direct their funds to specific projects only for grants that they give to universities and other research institutions—this accounts for $4 billion, or 8 percent, of basic science at universities and research institutions. In fact, individual philanthropists only make decisions for a portion of directed-use grants; in many cases, these grants are from foundations with no living donor, so staff and boards of directors at these foundations make the grant decisions. And, if you consider all basic science research expenditures in all sectors, including government and industry, the portion that is directed by donors and foundations shrinks to less than 5 percent ($4 billion out of $86 billion). 

Source: NSF National Patterns of R&D Resources, May 2018

Most established foundations rely heavily on the scientific community for input.

Also important is the process that philanthropists go through to make decisions on what science to support with their directed-use grants. As president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, whose membership represents 25 of the most significant funders of science in the U.S. and the U.K., I know that most established funders of scientific research have a rigorous process that relies extensively on the scientific community for input. Many have multiple science advisory boards and robust peer review systems. These science advisors and reviewers ensure that the foundation’s funds are being used in the most effective way. When advising newer philanthropists, one of the first things the Science Philanthropy Alliance does is to recommend engaging scientists as advisors and to form advisory boards.

Science philanthropists play a role that government finds difficult.

Ultimately, I believe that science philanthropy plays a critical role in funding science, one that is distinct from, yet complementary to, the government’s role. The fact is: as federal budgets become increasingly constrained, the government has increasingly tended to fund applied rather than basic science, yet the discovery science that lays the foundation for applied science is receiving less and less support. Philanthropy has increased endowments at research institutions and continues to be crucial for ongoing science research; universities and research institutes use the funds from their endowments to support the research of young scientists with bold ideas, but who do not yet have the track record needed to compete for scarce federal funds.

New directed-use grants from donors also play a special risk-taking role. Science philanthropists are much like the venture capitalists in Silicon Valley where I live, but unlike venture capitalists, science philanthropists achieve the payoff not for financial gain but for all of society’s benefit. Science philanthropists place bets on scientific research which may be riskier than the science that the government funds. Not all of these will be successful, but philanthropists are willing to do it because of the potential for transformational impact.

Examples of how philanthropy plays a role that is different from the government’s abound. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Project (LSST), a venture to build a telescope to detect dark matter and dark energy, was in its early stages too risky for the NSF to fund. Private donors, led by the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, stepped up to get the project its initial funding. The LSST, after its initial proof-of-concept stage, subsequently received funding from the NSF, the Department of Energy, as well as private sources. Its database will be available to the community at large with no proprietary restrictions. Similarly, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s support of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) allowed the scientific community to take advantage of cutting-edge data technology in the early 1990s, ultimately building one of the most highly-cited surveys in the history of astronomy.

Philanthropists are also helping to accelerate scientific research with the use of leading-edge data science and computational technology in scientific research. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has hired more than 140 people on its technology team, who are working side-by-side with scientists to professionalize technology that can accelerate basic biomedical research. The Simons Foundation recently launched its Flatiron Institute, whose mission is to advance scientific research through computational methods, including data analysis, modeling, and simulation. Schmidt Futures is funding science research that leverages the power of artificial intelligence to accelerate discovery. These computation-focused programs are being driven by philanthropists, who hope that this trail-blazing work, if fruitful, will find support from the government in future.

In short, direct philanthropy plays a small but critical role in supporting scientific research that government may not undertake. Philanthropy can help fund those explorations that would otherwise languish on the idea shelf. In the end, when Rob Reich says, “Foundations should be making long-time-horizon, risky experiments in social innovation that the government won’t do, and the marketplace is unlikely to do,” he is describing why science philanthropy works, and is crucial for science.