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Science Philanthropists’ Approaches to Making a Difference [Marc Kastner blog]

By Marc Kastner, president, Science Philanthropy Alliance

Researchers often want to know: will my research be of interest to philanthropists? That’s a hard question to answer—until you ask philanthropists themselves. At a recent Science Philanthropy Alliance conference in July, senior representatives from three of our member organizations—the Simons Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI)—gave presentations highlighting the importance of basic science and the types of investments each foundation makes to support science.

Why Foundations Support Basic Science

Jim Simons, co-founder of the Simons Foundation, emphasized how progress in basic science is the foundation for almost all improvements in human life. Jim likened support for basic science to a previous resident of his property who planted seven beech trees. This person did not see the trees mature, but knew that they would provide beauty and pleasure for generations.

Jim noted, however, that the fruits of basic science research may not always be evident to the scientist who does the research. James Clerk Maxwell, for example, established the Maxwell equations for electromagnetism around 1862, but at the time, he couldn’t have imagined the impacts of his discovery.

“He was not thinking, ‘Someday there will be television and I Love Lucy,” Jim said. “That was not in his mind at all, but of course he facilitated I Love Lucy and everything that came from understanding electromagnetism.”

Daniel Goroff, vice president and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, described basic science as a “public good.” Public goods include bridges, parks, and the discovery of black holes. They are of value to many, but from an economic point of view, they are hard to finance through market mechanisms. Thus that’s what foundations like the Sloan Foundation try to support.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a relatively new philanthropic organization, has ambitious goals: support the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century. Basic science, which provides the foundational knowledge necessary for clinical or translational scientific and medical research, will play a huge role.

“We’re trying to accelerate biomedical research,” said Cori Bargmann, president of Chan Zuckerberg Science. “We’re looking ahead 80 years. We’re saying, ‘What would it take?’”

Different Ways to Make a Difference

While the three organizations agreed on the importance of basic science, their approaches to science philanthropy are diverse.

The Simons Foundation’s support for basic science has created research opportunities in mathematics, physical sciences, and the life sciences. To Jim Simons, some of the most exciting areas of science right now relate to the application of computation to science. In late 2016, the Simons Foundation launched the Flatiron Institute to advance scientific research through computational methods including data analysis, modeling and simulation. So far the Institute’s focus has been in the areas of computational biology and astrophysics, and a computational center in quantum physics will launch in September.

The Sloan Foundation is interested in the institutions, infrastructure, incentives, and impacts of basic science. Doron Weber, vice president of programs and program director at the foundation, outlined some of its priorities: recruiting “the best people,” creating networks and research communities that will sustain research beyond the initial grants, collecting and analyzing data about research, training young scientists, increasing diversity, and leveraging its contributions to encourage additional support from other sources.

Since its establishment in 1934, the Sloan Foundation has created programs related to neuroscience, molecular evolution, marine life, environment microbiology, deep carbon, and chemistry of indoor environments, among other areas. Its longest-running science venture is the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a digital searchable map of the universe with multi-color images of one third of the sky, and spectra for more than three million astronomical objects. Before the SDSS was established in 1992, most astronomy was done from photographic plates. With the new digital telescopes that came online in the 1990’s, the Sloan Foundation recognized the opportunity for the astronomy community to create and share, for the first time, a digitized, data-rich map of the universe. Today, the SDSS is the most cited astronomical survey, and has provided valuable data for 7,500 papers.

The Sloan Foundation is also interested in research on improving the effectiveness of research, and supports projects like The Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS), a national source for data to capture and analyze information on the results of public and private investments in discovery, innovation, and education. Its work makes it possible for institutions and grantors to more fully understand the impact of their work. For example, data from IRIS could show that a particular grant went to a certain lab, which hired a certain person, who got a patent, and started a company.

To accelerate scientific discovery, CZI is focusing on facilitating collaboration between scientists and engineers and the development of enabling tools and technologies. For every opportunity that it considers, CZI asks: Does it have a systemic effect? Does it scale? Can it make a significant impact? And what will we learn?

CZI’s initial projects include a biohub linking scientists and engineers from three universities in the Bay Area—Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco—and working with the scientific community to develop a “Human Cell Atlas,” a free open reference map of all cells in the healthy human body that will serve as a resource to studies of health and disease.

The three organizations have different approaches to science philanthropy, but each is committed to supporting basic science and finding the best ways to work with research institutions and scientists so greater discoveries can be made.