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Talking in Texas about Science Philanthropy: How to Give [Alliance blog]

Sue Merrilees is an advisor with the Science Philanthropy Alliance. This is the second of a two-part blog in which she shares highlights from a recent event for philanthropists. Read the first blog here.

I had the pleasure of meeting with philanthropists and scientists in February at a science philanthropy event that the Science Philanthropy Alliance co-hosted with the University of Texas, Austin on the eve of the AAAS annual meeting. At the meeting, panelists and attendees discussed their diverse practices for giving to basic science.

Seeking Advice, Taking Risk, Providing Long-Term Support

On a panel about methods and models of funding, Danny Goroff from Alliance member the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation described the successful Sloan Research Fellowship Program for early-career faculty. He noted that 45 Nobel laureates and 16 Fields Medal winners were Sloan Fellows, and that the secret to recognizing talent early was not just by “relying on senior scholars in the field, as they provide the nominations,” but more importantly, it was the “selection of the selection committees; as it’s their quality, dedication, and judgment that make Sloan’s fellowship program so successful.”

When asked about how non-scientists can best determine which science—and scientists—to fund, Henrietta Alexander from the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. KIeberg Foundation responded, “We sought outside advice early on. It’s not so much the hot areas of research that we’re necessarily looking for, but the ideas that we can get behind, with a scientist that we can get behind, and those that usually have a broad and lasting impact on science.” When queried further about the foundation’s philosophy, she continued, “We want to do work that other people aren’t already doing; we are willing to take the risks, and we are willing to stay in it. Some things we’ve supported for many, many years have required a sustainable approach to reach their goal.”

A Portfolio Approach

Portfolio diversity is one important strategy that came up. Eric Marshall from Alliance member The Kavli Foundation stated, “We believe it’s really important for all philanthropists to include some R&D in their portfolio—to take the long view. Most businesses place 15% of their resources back into R&D to ensure they are going to have impact and relevance out into the future. Kavli places 100% of its resources there about 80% in fundamental research and the remainder in advancing scientists in society.”

Strategic Philanthropy: Unrestricted Gifts

There was also a lively discussion of the pros and cons of unrestricted gifts. Robert Kirshner, from Alliance member the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, was asked to describe the impact on Caltech of a nine-figure, unrestricted gift. “The Moore gift gave the university faculty the challenge of figuring out what they wanted to do,” he commented. “This is pretty risky, I would say. But Caltech responded well: choosing big, important areas that strengthened the institution.”

Since the Moore foundation thinks measurement is important, a panel of university administrators who have deep understanding of research was brought in to evaluate the impact of the grant, with the ambiguous conclusion: “Great idea; wonderfully effective; but we aren’t going to do it again.” Bob noted one drawback to big, unallocated gifts “is making sure that the money gets used,” noting that “the researchers tend to spend philanthropic dollars last. But they used the Moore Foundation funds well, opening up new fields for Caltech, making an excellent place even better.”

Brent Iverson, the incoming chair of the board of Alliance member Research Corporation for Science Advancement, provided a tangible example of the impact of unrestricted money on basic research. He recounted a previous campus event attended by Norbert Dittrich, president of the Houston-based Welch Foundation, which is one of the United States’ largest private funding sources for basic chemical research. At that event, Brent asked more than 100 UT faculty which of them had their most creative research idea funded by a Welch Foundation grant, and “every hand went up. That is the legacy of funding basic science research.”

Earlier in the week I’d had the privilege of visiting with Norbert. Dittrich shared the following as another illustration of the value of unrestricted support, “Our funding is so stable that some of the state institutions mention it when they are recruiting scientists—it’s helped draw talent to the state.”

Other examples of strategic gifts were also discussed. In response to a question from philanthropist Harry Lucas about the outcome of a small seed money grant for inquiry-based learning that he’d made to the Harvard Mathematics department, Danny Goroff (now of the Sloan Foundation, but who was teaching at Harvard University when Harry made the grant to Harvard) noted it was a good example of how “important, strategic, and very wise investments can make a huge difference, as it ended up changing the way a lot of mathematics was taught at my department at Harvard.” He continued, “It’s another illustration of how this kind of private philanthropy is qualitatively and quantitatively completely different from what governments can do and from what corporations can do, and so it’s very valuable.”

Is payment of overhead costs at universities a good use of philanthropic funding? Danny addressed this controversial question. “I love paying overhead,” was a statement that caused surprised murmurs throughout the room. He explained, “I realized it’s the price you pay in the U.S. for not having federal universities. It is genius in its outcome, as it supports universities in proportion to the amount of research that they do without all the federal meddling common in other countries.”

Ultimately, I found the Texas gathering inspirational. It was wonderful to hear from philanthropists who cared about basic science and who were eager to share their experiences and to connect with other like-minded people.