Basic research is defined as systematic study directed toward fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts. In the natural sciences and mathematics, there is a spectrum of basic research, from that which is driven by the desire to discover new phenomena to that which is motivated by the hope to achieve some use or goal. Learn more by reading Our Mission.
Basic research leads, often in completely unexpected ways, to discoveries that improve our lives. Examples include the MRI, which came out of basic physics research, and novel gene therapies, which came out of basic research on bacteria. Certainly, the cell phone is packed with devices that came out of basic research on the properties of materials. Basic research is also important because it satisfies the fundamental curiosity we all have about the world around us. Learn more by reading Our Mission.
In every area of science, researchers, especially young ones, are discovering new frontiers. Typically, private funding is more patient and more nimble than government funding. Philanthropists can boldly fund the promising new idea or research path that will quickly move a field of science or mathematics ahead.
Up until World War II, the primary source of funding was from the private sector, including both industry and philanthropy, but after the success of wartime initiatives such as the Manhattan Project, federal funding for scientific research saw enormous growth. After World War II, it became widely accepted that governments were mainly responsible for supporting discovery science research. Since the 1970s we have experienced federal decreases in research investments as a percentage of GDP and federal funding agencies have become increasingly risk averse. Indeed, it appears governments are seeking to fund more translational or applied research at the expense of discovery science. At the same time, we have witnessed decreases in corporate funding for basic scientific research, with R&D funding aimed less at the “R” and more at the “D.”
Unfortunately, weak economies and a lack of faith in scientific progress are causing nations, including the United States, to shift their priorities to short-term goals. Philanthropists cannot fill the gap that governments are leaving, but philanthropists are uniquely suited to make an impact on basic research. Private funders can be early supporters of high-risk endeavors, which the government may be hesitant to start, especially those that call on the skills and collaboration of many different types of scientists. As a result, philanthropy plays a special role in promoting scientific progress and advancing the common good, as powerful and wealthy individuals and families have done throughout history. Learn more by reading The Need for Private Funding.
We advise, connect, inform, and convene philanthropists to uncover the best practices in funding basic research. Some philanthropists who are inclined to support discovery science find it daunting, and, therefore, may be doing less than they could. By providing expert advice on how to support discovery science effectively, we help these donors get the most satisfaction out of their philanthropy. For those who are not yet supporting discovery science, we encourage a portfolio approach to philanthropy. When an individual, a family, or a foundation is considering how they want to make their philanthropic investments, we encourage them to consider what percentage of their portfolio they want to invest in short-term, mid-term, and long-term investments. We believe that an exciting long-term investment is in discovery science research. Because scientific research is both high-risk and high-return, taking the long view by supporting scientists who are solving fundamental problems can result in both incremental and monumental discoveries. This high-risk, high-return, long-term approach will net results that even the researcher cannot anticipate. Often these results have long term implications for science, technology and society as a whole. Learn more by visiting What We Do.
The Alliance was founded by six organizations with a shared interest in increasing private support for basic research in a wide variety of scientific fields and mathematics. Each of the organizations—with endowments ranging from $200 million to over $18 billion—commit a sizable percentage of their grant-making portfolio to basic scientific research. Working together, the Alliance members raise the profile of basic scientific research, engage established and emerging philanthropists in funding, and pool their expertise to promote wider support for science philanthropy. Learn more about each of the members by visiting Members.
The members of the Alliance represent a broad spectrum of models for effective science philanthropy and use the Alliance to share and learn. With current members, with endowments ranging from $200 million to over $18 billion, there is a diversity of models for how to support discovery science. For example, Research Corporation for Science Advancement was founded in 1912, and is the second oldest foundation in America, with the proud legacy of having funded over 40 Nobel laureates in the sciences. In contrast, the Simons Foundation was created in 1994, and still has the founders actively involved in the daily activities of the foundation. Howard Hughes Medical Institute has built a respected model of how to support individual scientists through their investigator programs. Each member brings a unique approach and experience that can be shared and adapted. Learn more about each of the members by visiting Members.
If you are interested in learning about Alliance membership, please contact Sue Merrilees.
Measuring the impact of philanthropic support for discovery science research is challenging because the time scale for influencing technology or health can be decades. Also, the impact often comes in a field unrelated to the one where the breakthrough takes place. For example, whereas MRI is now used widely as a medical diagnostic tool, its origins come from the development of physics techniques for determining the magnetic moment of the nucleus of atoms.
Faced with this challenge, each of our members has, over time, developed creative and consistent methods for measuring the impact of their philanthropic support. One of the exciting consequences of asking fundamental questions is that the research can take you down paths that were unanticipated at the beginning of the scientific journey.
Often the first consequence of an important discovery is the influence it has on other scientists; they change their own research focus to follow-up. There are multiple different mechanisms for measuring this impact, and the Alliance helps philanthropists choose ones that give them confidence that their support makes a difference. Please Contact Us.
Basic scientific research is conducted at research universities, independent research institutes, and national laboratories here in the United States and abroad. These organizations significantly contribute to new knowledge, which ultimately leads to practical technologies and improved human health. As a commitment to driving fundamental research, a number of universities in the United States have created new funds dedicated exclusively to supporting basic research. The Science Philanthropy Alliance believes these types of funds provide an opportunity for targeted philanthropic investment in research that supports ongoing, fundamental discovery.
The Alliance supports basic research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada where its members are based and where its networks are strongest. It also provides ad hoc support to philanthropists and foundations from other international locations upon request.