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Research Institutions Meeting Highlights

On March 8-9, 2023, the Science Philanthropy Alliance welcomed over 250 attendees from nearly 140 research institutions to a virtual Research Institutions Meeting, aligned with our strategic plan goals of fostering partnerships and facilitating shared learning and collaboration. We hope the highlights shared below and the recordings and resources available on the event landing page enable you to engage with the thought-provoking conversations that spanned this two-day event, and that you feel inspired to think differently about what it can look like to support researchers and engage with foundations and philanthropic organizations to advance scientific discovery.

Inside philanthropy

The first day of the meeting took us inside the thought processes of philanthropic foundations. After an opening presentation about the Science Philanthropy Alliance, the agenda featured two panel sessions with member foundation presidents followed by Q&A breakout sessions.

Why do philanthropic funders support discovery science?

In this session, moderated by the Alliance’s Rachel Jackson, Maria Pellegrini (W. M. Keck Foundation) spoke to the unique value philanthropy can bring. “What foundations can do is take these big risks and look for gaps that the federal system isn’t covering,” she said, adding that foundations can seek things that are “a whole different way of thinking about something.” Dan Linzer (Research Corporation for Science Advancement) emphasized that foundations are well positioned to bring people together across institutions and across disciplines to realize “the kind of inclusive environment that we want to create for science today.” That work can happen across long time scales, David Spergel (Simons Foundation) emphasized, and without fear of failure – or maybe in encouragement of it: “I like to tell our grants officers that if most of our projects are achieving their goals, that’s bad. We’re not being ambitious enough.” Panelists spoke to how funding discovery science can promote a collaborative science culture.

How do foundations determine their priorities?

These themes of what foundations have to offer were echoed by the speakers in our second panel. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and chair of the Alliance’s Advisory Board, was joined by three fellow Advisory Board members to discuss how their organizations establish funding priorities. Caroline Montojo described that she joined the Dana Foundation at an inflection point. She spoke about how the foundation has assessed areas where private funding can have a unique impact relative to federal funding. Adam Falk similarly highlighted the idea of finding a niche as a core strategy that goes back to the beginning of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The discussion frequently returned to values, and Lou Muglia emphasized how diversity is a priority at all levels of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

When asked to share a piece of advice for universities or researchers seeking philanthropic support, the panelists emphasized the importance of bringing in new voices as collaborators, having bi-directional idea exchanges that scientific societies can facilitate, and being unafraid to reach out to program officers who enjoy connecting with the researchers they support.


Intersectional philanthropy

The second day of the meeting featured four panels focused on philanthropy’s intersection with equity, institutional engagement, society, and science communication.

How are philanthropic funders promoting equity in science?

In a panel moderated by Alliance External Science Advisor Shirley Tilghman, three foundation program directors pulled back the curtain on philanthropic funders’ ongoing efforts to promote equity in science. Lorelle Espinosa (Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) discussed how, though the Sloan Foundation has had a commitment to gender and racial equity for decades, it remains challenging to ensure that the work doesn’t end up siloed. “Our understanding of the problem of underrepresentation in STEM is also ongoing, for all of us, including the most promising solutions,” she said, adding that foundations have only recently begun the critical work of understanding who they support, on both a researcher and institution level. At the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, an explicit focus on DEI has come with a change in leadership, and Isaac Agbeshie-Noye spoke to their efforts to design equity-centered partnerships that leverage the strengths of institutions.

The idea that leadership is needed to operationalize DEI commitments was echoed by Cyndi Atherton, who has led the Science Program at the Heising-Simons Foundation through a period of program redesign motivated by lack of representation in their own programs. “Diversity is a leadership problem,” she said, “and until leadership takes hold of it and takes accountability for change, you don’t see lasting and sustainable change.” All panelists are thinking about the potential impact of upcoming Supreme Court decisions on diversity programs within higher education, and encourage foundations to work with their grantees to prepare for different outcomes.

How can institutions position themselves for science philanthropy?

The second panel of the day, moderated by Alliance External Science Advisor Margaret Leinen, provided an opportunity for attendees to hear from university leaders about their experiences engaging with philanthropy. “It’s very much of a team effort,” said Mari Ostendorf, Vice Provost of Research at the University of Washington, of the approach to positioning faculty to attract philanthropic interest. “It’s the faculty who have the great ideas that funders will get excited about…but we want to help them understand donor interest.” She highlighted the role that development staff play in keeping track of the bigger picture, a sentiment echoed by Jonelle Bradshaw de Herndanez, who serves as Research Assistant Professor and Executive Director of Foundation Relations at the University of Texas at Austin. She encouraged people working in development to deploy the “superpower of the subject-matter curious” and serve as a translator between faculty, leadership, and foundations to help make the right matches. This comes, she says, from understanding your local culture, the mission and value of your institution, and what your faculty can bring.


Helene Gayle, who serves as president of Spelman College, agreed that the relationship between researchers and the development office within an institution “has to be seen as a partnership,” adding that this works best when funders see themselves as part of the partnership, as well. Although it can take time to build a partnership, this can be a satisfying journey with a better end result.

How are philanthropic funders thinking about science and society?

“We see a lot of things that we would consider scientific issues turned into very polarized political issues,” moderator and Alliance External Science Advisor Fleming Crim mused mid-way through the third panel of the day, a conversation with the leaders of three organizations with a long history of explicitly supporting work on the intersection of science and society. Those organizations are confronting an increasingly polarized environment. “I think there are a lot of scientists who think that ‘all I’m doing is asking descriptive questions about the world and answering them’… That might be true in a lab, but it’s not true of the science enterprise,” said Sam Gill (Doris Duke Foundation), highlighting that science – and support of science – is occurring in the context of a society and its values.

“There’s not one size fits all” for that context, Matthew Walhout (John Templeton Foundation) emphasized, saying that a constant theme for their organization is that they have to ask where people are starting and what perspective they bring. Despite connection points, though, panelists spoke to the difficulty of building trust across communities that are suspicious of each other. “Change moves at the speed of trust,” Elizabeth Christopherson (Rita Allen Foundation) added, and foundations are looking to interdisciplinary teams and considering equity and inclusion as they try to support science in a climate of widespread mistrust.

How are philanthropic funders advancing science communication?

Alliance External Science Advisor Tom Cech served as the final moderator of the day, leading a two-pronged discussion around public engagement in science and engaging potential donors through science communication. “Often we say ‘the public,’ but lawmakers, librarians, GP assistants, they’re all the public, right?… Talking about your work to anybody is an important skill to have,” Ivvet Modinou (Simons Foundation) said, noting how skills built within a university context translate outward and the importance of universities understanding that value. Claire Pomeroy (Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation) challenged institutions to take the time to identify the science communication programs already hard at work within their institutions. Do they provide opportunities for partnership, improvement, or promotion to donors?

Conversations around the societal context for research continued in this final panel. Ivvet highlighted community-led motivations for research questions, and alternative funding models that support community partners first, while Brooke Smith (Kavli Foundation) spoke to what makes an engaged institution, including challenging the paradigm that universities do research separate from the world. All panelists highlighted how investment in the value of communication must include top-down, with “leading by example.”

Leaders at engaged institutions can also help researchers understand how to engage with foundations, something Brooke described also as a bi-directional sharing opportunity. “Spend some time having a conversation, not just talking at us about what you want to fund – to learn…what is Kavli interested in? What are the things, and why is that? The best thing about that true engagement is we both learn.”


Institutional priorities and the road ahead

There were some common themes in the dozens of questions submitted and discussed prior to and throughout the meeting. Institutions want to know how to spread the wealth – how to attract philanthropic support, and how to efficiently find information about opportunities to engage with foundations.

Foundations want to be a source of support, and we heard how deeply our attendees at this meeting wanted to understand how to engage with their teams. The Alliance, as part of its new strategic plan, will be working to aggregate information about open funding opportunities in ways that make it easier for research institutions to find – just one of the many future directions we hope will stem from this productive meeting.