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Private Funding for Basic Science Research at U.S. Universities and Colleges Exceeds $1.2 billion in 2015 [News Release and Summary Report]

Download the summary of the survey results.

Read the Chronicle of Philanthropy story about the survey.

Read the Inside Philanthropy story about the survey.



Private Funding for Basic Science Research at U.S. Universities and Colleges Exceeds $1.2 billion in 2015

Life sciences attracts half of all basic research funding

Foundations are the biggest source of private funding to basic research, followed by corporations and individual donors

PALO ALTO, CA (May 16, 2016) – At least $1.2 billion of private funding supported basic research in the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics in 2015, according to a recent survey of the Association of American Universities (AAU). Private funding of basic research across all academic disciplines reached at least $2.2 billion. Twenty-seven higher education institutions, including 26 of the 62 AAU members, participated in this first-ever survey of private giving for basic research conducted by the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

Given that only 42% of AAU members responded and most independent research institutes were not invited to participate, the survey findings are likely to be a substantial underestimate of the total philanthropic giving for basic research. That said, the total funding of basic science research is still likely to be small in comparison to U.S. federal government funding of research and development (which includes basic science) to higher education institutions of about $40 billion per year. Federal funding of research and development at higher education institutions has fallen over 11% since 2011, representing the longest multiyear decline in federal funding for academic R&D since data collection began in 1972. (NSF, 2016) In particular, basic science has faced challenges; 88% of AAAS scientists say that lack of funding for basic research is a serious problem. (Pew Research Center, Jan 2015)

Life sciences attracts half of all basic research funding

According to the survey, life sciences received just over $1 billion, or 47% of the total funding for basic research, while physical sciences received $159 million (7%), and mathematics received $36 million (2%).  Some institutions raised much more than others; $613 million – 50% of the $1.2 billion – went to just five institutions.

by field

Note: Examples of disciplines captured in “Other” include engineering, business, and agriculture, as well as certain interdisciplinary fields of study that do not fit into the previous fields.

Foundations are the biggest source of funding to basic research, followed by corporations and individual donors

The four sources of giving measured in the survey were individuals, foundations, corporations, and “other” sources such as donor-advised funds.  Foundations were the largest source of charitable funding for basic research at $979 million (45%), while corporations contributed $481 million (22%), individuals gave $382 million (18%), and “other” charities and donor-advised funds contributed $313 million (15%).  Foundations also gave the most funding to the science fields alone, providing $550 million or 45% of the $1.2 billion for the sciences.

by source

Note: Examples of “other” sources are donor-advised funds, civic organizations, other universities, other charities (such as the Red Cross), fundraising consortia (such as United Way), and religious organizations.

The need to begin benchmarking this type of funding is becoming increasingly urgent.  “As support of basic research in industry declines and government funding becomes more constrained and tilts toward shorter term goals, philanthropic support of basic science at universities is more important than ever,” said Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. “This survey provides a baseline to measure funding for basic science research, without which there would be no GPS, lasers, microprocessors, or, more recently, CRISPR gene editing tools or the study of gravitational waves.”

This year’s survey, which saw 42% of the AAU participating, was developed by the Alliance and hosted by the Council for Aid to Education adjacent to its annual VSE survey. Greater awareness is expected to increase participation of research institutions in future years.

About the Science Philanthropy Alliance

The Science Philanthropy Alliance is a group of organizations working together to increase philanthropic support for basic scientific research on a global basis. To help philanthropists and foundations support basic research most effectively, the Alliance provides advice and information to philanthropists and foundations on basic science philanthropy, connects them to scientists and experienced philanthropists, and convenes events to facilitate sharing of best practices.

Founded in 2012, its members form a global community of funders who are transforming the future of scientific discovery. They include: the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Kavli Foundation, The Klarman Family Foundation, the Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation, the Simons Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the Wellcome Trust.