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 âAdvancing Science: The Role of Private Philanthropy.â 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. âScience is the answerâ is her motto. She began with her favorite quote from Walt Disney, âItâs kind of fun to do the impossible,â noting that through her philanthropy, she is always âlooking for ways that science can tackle challenges that would otherwise be impossible to address.â
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, âI get excited when a grantee calls and says, âI made a breakthrough.â It is so wonderful to know that you are helping people all over the world get better, or our planet to be more resilient.â
Steve Winn from the Winn Family Foundation confessed, âMy passion is basic research. Basic research is much more difficult because you donât even know what questions to ask. When you go into basic research, you need to bring in the best minds in the world.â
When asked about the appeal of basic research, Sheridan Mitchell Lorenz from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation observed, âMany founders of fortunes that were built on risk-taking love the big idea, so what Iâve also loved is being around scientists who have the big ideas.â
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 Toddâs father Richard was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease. Todd noted that, âupon 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 thatâs what Lowisa and I have continued.â
While attendees agreed on the importance of basic science, they described different approaches to support it.
Left to right: panelistsÂ 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, âI 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 thatâs all. You want to bring great scientists into the room, surround them with other great scientists, and let the magic happen. Thatâs the formula.â
When asked how they encourage researchers to work together, Lowisa stated, âOne of Richardâs main things was that scientists have to share data. They canât sit on data because [discoveries] would take forever.â
She continued, âRichard 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 donât have a science background, so I canât help that way, but we always feed them and try and have fun. Thereâs a lot of high-fives, thereâs a lot of hugging. Thatâs how I can help.â
Lowisa noted, âRichard was always focused on the young scientists, so we have the principal investigators bring the fellows and include them in the gatherings.â Todd agreed, âItâs important to make them feel respected.â
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 âwe really do have some impact on the problems that we are looking at.â
âLike my father, we want this [foundation] to be passed down through the generations,â noted Heather Winn Bowman of the Winn Family Foundation. âMy sister and brother are already thinking about their childrenâŚgetting them involved as early as possible.â
âIâm trying to write that final chapter of the book,â said Todd, âMy goal is to try to do something in his [Richardâs] honor.â
At dayâs end, Sheridan captured the excitement in the room by her inspiring summary, âPhilanthropists have the opportunity to fill the gaps where federal funding wonâtâor canâtâfund 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 everythingâabout medicine, the nature of climate changeâwe all have the responsibility to look to those areas and try to do our part to encourage faster response to problems.â