<< Return to News Archive
UK Philanthropists’ Views on Supporting Science Research [Alliance blog]

Valerie Conn is executive director of the Science Philanthropy Alliance

London was cold and blustery on March 7, but on that day there was much warmth and enthusiasm at the science philanthropy meeting co-hosted by the Science Philanthropy Alliance, Wellcome, and Winton Philanthropies. The goal of the event, the first that the Alliance has hosted outside of the US, was to convene UK and US philanthropists and scientists to discuss exciting opportunities in scientific research and effective ways to give to early stage science.

One panel featured funders. Harvey Fineberg, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, interviewed two science philanthropists from the UK, David Sainsbury of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, founder of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and David Harding, founder and CEO of the Winton Group and Winton Philanthropies. Given that Fineberg leads an established foundation, Sainsbury has given to science for decades, and Harding has been supporting science for just over 10 years , the panel provided a range of perspectives.

Left to right: London event panelists David Harding, David Sainsbury, and moderator Harvey Fineberg. Photo by David Sandison/Wellcome.

Getting Started

David Sainsbury and David Harding got their starts in philanthropy in different ways. Sainsbury, who arrived at Cambridge University with a plan to read history, was captivated by science, particularly genetics, and switched his focus to psychology. Although he joined the family business after university, his interest in science continued, and he was encouraged by his friend Roger Freedman, a scientist, to support research in genetic plant science, which in the ‘80s was emerging as an exciting and important field. Sainsbury started funding a few projects and became more familiar with the field, leading to his support of disease resistance in plants (including the establishment of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University), which he has found very rewarding. “It was exciting scientifically but could also have huge benefits to the environment and farming. It was a hugely fun thing to do,” he commented.

Harding was already interested in science when he started at Cambridge University, where he studied theoretical physics. After university, he found professional success applying statistical analysis to investment. The same professional interest led to his support of Gerd Gigerenzer’s research in risk science at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and David Spiegelhalter’s research at Cambridge University. Harding wanted to support the study of and the better use of statistics in human endeavors. “Human beings are poor at statistics because it’s counterintuitive,” stated Harding. Considering the immensity and importance of conclusions that build upon it, I felt policymakers as well as average citizens should be better equipped to make better decisions for themselves and their loved ones.”

Harding’s initial foray into philanthropy was followed by support of research in other areas, including the physics of sustainability, high temperature superconductors, bioinformatics, and extrasolar planets.

Motivations for philanthropy

Fineberg asked the panelists about their motivations for supporting science. Sainsbury shared that his philanthropy is motivated both by the beauty of science as well as its value. The research that he funds on disease resistance in plants, for example, is beautiful science–it involves digging into the genetic basis for disease resistance in plants and then exploring how to insert stacks of genes into plants to make them resistant to pathogens. But it is also potentially of great value in farming and food security. In fact, Sainsbury finds that most of his charitable activities are about “finding clever ways to solve problems.”

Harding’s philanthropy is primarily motivated by the science itself. As an example, he talked about his boyhood passions in extrasolar planetary research, including the exploration of other earth-like planets or the possibility of life on other planets. “From my point of view, who wouldn’t want to [support] that if they had the wherewithal to do so?”

Harding also said that personal relationships are important to him, and noted that he looks for opportunities where his gift will make a real difference to the individual scientist. He particularly enjoys his interactions with scientists: “I like to fund scientists whom I trust and admire and get along with,” he commented.

Splashing Around in the Shallows

Both men had some tips about learning about science and science funding to someone new to  philanthropy. Sainsbury offered, “The first thing is to be clear what your interest is, then immerse yourself in it and find out more about it. Rather than creating a big plan, it’s helpful to support a few small projects in the area, and then follow those closely. In two to three years, you’ll have a much better understanding of that area of science – what the opportunities are, who the good scientists are, and what are the exciting research projects to support.” Sainsbury called this approach “splashing around in the shallows.”

Sainsbury also stressed that it is important to think about how philanthropy’s role is different from that of the government. With government funding in the US and UK often limited to short-term grants, which limit the creativity and risks that scientists take, there is a huge benefit to offering longer-term (for example, ten year) grants which allow scientists to take on more creative but riskier scientific research.

For Harding’s part, he said that it has been helpful for him to seek advice, and that interacting with other members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance has been very valuable.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that philanthropists should follow their passion. Said Sainsbury, “The fundamental thing is to find fun and exciting things to fund. If you concentrate on what you care about, you will put in the effort to understand it and give it your commitment, and you will be excited about what you can achieve.”