By Rose-Marie Brandwein
Science is on the agenda on the global stage. The World Economic Forum at Davos annually features Climate Change and Environmental risk issues. This year’s Open Forum theme “From Lab to Life: Science in Action” further elevated science in the conversation byexamining the role of science in society today, the need for building trust in science, the challenges of AI and more.
While science itself may be front and center, federal support for basic science at U.S. research institutions has plateaued. Many global issues direct federal attention towards immediate problem-solving. Fortunately, philanthropists are meeting the opportunity to drive basic research forward and ensure that we realize the full benefits of scientific discovery.
Recently, we sat down with The Science Philanthropy Alliance’s Director of Strategy, Kate Lowry, Ph.D., who coauthored the Alliance’s Science Philanthropy Indicators Report, a significant thought leadership piece which sheds considerable light on the growing role and influence of philanthropy in directing funds towards basic research in higher education and at nonprofit research institutions. This is a notable shift which discusses the decades long decline of federal funding in basic research within these sectors in favor of applied research and/or other areas.
RMB: The Science Philanthropy Alliance is a leader in helping funders and philanthropists alike in understanding the basic science research landscape. What was the impetus for the development of this report using National Science Foundation (NSF) data? How does it paint a fuller picture for us?
Kate Lowry: The inspiration for this inaugural report comes from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators, which publishes biennial reports on the State of U.S. Science and Engineering. Our report uses the same data provided by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), but we view the data through a philanthropic lens. While the national report includes nonprofit and higher education funding, it doesn’t discuss the philanthropic nature of these important research funding sources. We recognized the need for a view of the science funding landscape that incorporates philanthropy.
I would also like to add that in 2022, the Science Philanthropy Alliance published a new strategic plan guided by two pillars to advance scientific discovery: 1) new philanthropy for science and 2) more impactful and effective science philanthropy. Our work to share science funding trends falls under the second pillar of this plan. Our goal is to distribute unique analyses and existing reports that help characterize the importance of philanthropy in the science funding landscape, allowing philanthropic funders and their staff to make informed and effective investments in discovery science.
RMB: What information or trends gleaned from the data most surprised you and why?
Kate Lowry: It is often assumed that the federal government funds most basic academic research in the U.S. Yet, when we combined the contribution of higher education and nonprofit support as an estimate of current and legacy philanthropic funding, we find that philanthropy provides nearly 40% of the total support for basic research at U.S. universities and nonprofit research institutions in 2021, up from less than 20% in the 1960s. Meanwhile, federal funding for basic research at U.S. universities and nonprofit research institutes has declined in a relative sense, from more than 75% in the 1960s to approximately 50% in 2021. Our estimates have some caveats that more robust data collection would help address, but regardless the data show that the role of philanthropy as a funding source for basic research is much greater than most people realize.
RMB: Science philanthropy is growing in influence in basic research, whereas federal funding has reached a plateau. What accounts for this and what other trends do you see for philanthropy to extend its reach?
Kate Lowry: Our report finds that federal support for basic research at U.S. universities and nonprofit research institutes has not increased over the last 15 years (from 2006 to 2021) when adjusted for inflation. Over that same period, our estimates indicate that philanthropic support for basic research increased by approximately 40%. Funding increases have been greater for applied research, in which federal support increased by over 70% and philanthropic funding by 100% from 2006 to 2021 even after adjusting for inflation. Philanthropy can play an important role in advancing basic research, particularly as other funders increasingly support more applied work in response to national and global needs.
RMB: Basic research funding in both higher education and nonprofit research institutions have unique needs and uses. How can philanthropy more effectively fill those needs in comparison with the federal government, business, etc.?
Kate Lowry: One of the ways that philanthropy can uniquely contribute to the scientific enterprise is by supporting areas of basic research that would be otherwise overlooked. For example, our report finds that most of the R&D funding at universities and nonprofit research institutes is devoted to biological, biomedical, and health sciences. By comparison, even though the ocean covers more than 70% of our planet and plays a key role in driving the global carbon cycle, ocean and marine sciences receive less than 2% of the R&D science spending at universities. Increased funding for basic research is needed across all fields and from all funding sources, and philanthropy can have an outsized impact particularly when supporting less funded areas of research. In the social sciences, for example, philanthropy provides over half of the support for university-led R&D.
RMB: What actions can philanthropies and funders take to increase impact?
Kate Lowry: Another way that philanthropy can increase its impact is by funding discovery research that is too risky or challenging for other funding sources to support. For example, it can be difficult for the U.S. federal government to support certain aspects of international research collaborations, so philanthropy can play an important role in partnering with the federal government and other funders on such efforts. In our report, we describe many examples in which philanthropic funders are working together to advance equity in science, evaluate basic research, and promote open science, as well as foster a culture of civic science and science communication.
RMB: In your next report, you plan on incorporating global data. What do you anticipate learning about U.S. and/or global funding practices from the data?
Kate Lowry: We are eager to explore a variety of global datasets for our next Science Philanthropy Indicators Report. In general, science funding datasets are much less robust than they should be to fully understand the contribution of philanthropy. Even in the U.S., there are substantial uncertainties in estimating the proportion of higher education funding that is philanthropic in origin and the contribution of philanthropic gifts from individual donors that are designated for research. We look forward to illuminating what we can from existing datasets and to developing partnerships that enhance our understanding of the global science philanthropy landscape. Stay tuned!
For more information about the Alliance, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rose-Marie Brandwein is a Strategic Communications Consultant