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Talking in Texas about Science Philanthropy: Why Philanthropists Care about Basic Science [Alliance blog]

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

The Science Philanthropy Alliance recently hosted an event with the University of Texas-Austin, called “Advancing Science: The Role of Private Philanthropy.” The purpose of this gathering, held on the eve of the 2018 AAAS annual meeting, was two-fold: to bring philanthropists together to share knowledge and best practices, and to learn of the exciting potential of basic science research in areas like astrophysics, biomedical research, and climate science.

The day was kicked off by Texan Lyda Hill of the Lyda Hill Foundation, co-host and associate member of the Alliance, whose energy and generosity (she is a Giving Pledger) is matched only by her enthusiastic belief in science. “Science is the answer” is her motto. She began with her favorite quote from Walt Disney, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” noting that through her philanthropy, she is always “looking for ways that science can tackle challenges that would otherwise be impossible to address.”

The importance of basic science was one of the topics that got a lot of attention at the event. Many philanthropists shared why they thought it was important to support basic science.

Lyda observed, “I get excited when a grantee calls and says, ‘I made a breakthrough.’ It is so wonderful to know that you are helping people all over the world get better, or our planet to be more resilient.”

Steve Winn from the Winn Family Foundation confessed, “My passion is basic research. Basic research is much more difficult because you don’t even know what questions to ask. When you go into basic research, you need to bring in the best minds in the world.”

When asked about the appeal of basic research, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation observed, “Many founders of fortunes that were built on risk-taking love the big idea, so what I’ve also loved is being around scientists who have the big ideas.”

Todd and Lowisa Rainwater from the Rainwater Charitable Foundation described the establishment of the Tau Consortium. This is a group of 50 researchers who meet twice annually, established in 2009 when Todd’s father Richard was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease. Todd noted that, “upon finding out his diagnosis, my father immediately went into investment mode. He created a research team using his business methods. He hired the Michael Jordans [the best] and then provided an atmosphere where people could flourish. The goal there was to lavish them with love and praise. And that’s what Lowisa and I have continued.”

While attendees agreed on the importance of basic science, they described different approaches to support it.

Left to right: panelists Heather Winn Bowman, Steve Winn, Lowisa Rainwater, Todd Rainwater, and Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz

Encouraging Collaboration and Data Sharing

When asked for his advice on working with scientists and researchers, Steve responded, “I just get out of the way. I love math and science, can talk at a very high level about these topics, and get excited to the point where my energy may rub a little bit off on them, but that’s all. You want to bring great scientists into the room, surround them with other great scientists, and let the magic happen. That’s the formula.”

When asked how they encourage researchers to work together, Lowisa stated, “One of Richard’s main things was that scientists have to share data. They can’t sit on data because [discoveries] would take forever.”

She continued, “Richard had an office that was always very friendly. What I tried to do is when they [the researchers] come, make it like a big family reunion, to encourage collaboration. I don’t have a science background, so I can’t help that way, but we always feed them and try and have fun. There’s a lot of high-fives, there’s a lot of hugging. That’s how I can help.”

Lowisa noted, “Richard was always focused on the young scientists, so we have the principal investigators bring the fellows and include them in the gatherings.” Todd agreed, “It’s important to make them feel respected.”

Legacy of Giving

Legacy was an important consideration for some of the philanthropists at the event.

Sheridan stated that ultimately, what she hoped for was that “we really do have some impact on the problems that we are looking at.”

Like my father, we want this [foundation] to be passed down through the generations,” noted Heather Winn Bowman of the Winn Family Foundation. “My sister and brother are already thinking about their children…getting them involved as early as possible.”

“I’m trying to write that final chapter of the book,” said Todd, “My goal is to try to do something in his [Richard’s] honor.”

At day’s end, Sheridan captured the excitement in the room by her inspiring summary, “Philanthropists have the opportunity to fill the gaps where federal funding won’t—or can’t—fund these bold big ideas. Philanthropists have a unique opportunity to foster research in new innovative ways and to make things happen faster. And I think the sense of urgency about everything—about medicine, the nature of climate change—we all have the responsibility to look to those areas and try to do our part to encourage faster response to problems.”