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How Foundations can have an Outsize Impact on Scientific Research [Alliance blog]

Marc Kastner is the president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. This article first appeared on the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation website.

When I was young, becoming an academic scientist was a dependable career choice. With a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago in hand, I joined the faculty of MIT in 1973. I applied for and received a research grant from the federal government, and I continued to enjoy federal grants for the entirety of my research career over the next forty years. This experience, common in my day, is no longer true for most scientists who work on fundamental research because the level of basic science research funding by the federal government has not kept up with the need. Many scientists have a much more difficult time supporting their research with government grants.

Fundamental, basic scientific research has been the fuel for U.S. technological innovation since World War II. It is the source of discoveries that has led to GPS and medical technologies like MRIs and CAT scans. High-temperature superconductivity, discovered in 1986, is now used in cell phone towers, and CRISPR-CAS 9, discovered only a few years ago, offers tremendous potential in many biomedical fields.

The U.S. government has been the primary funder of basic science research. In 2004, federal funding represented 64% of all basic science research expenditures at universities. However, by 2016, that figure had dwindled to 52%. While the U.S. scientific enterprise was fortunate this year to escape the budget cuts proposed by the administration, government budgets will continue to feel pressure from increased spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and the prospects for federal basic science spending in the longer term do not look promising.

The role of philanthropists

How does philanthropy fit into the picture? Our Private Funding of Basic Science Survey indicated that total private funding for basic science was at least $2.3 billion in 2017. Given that the response rate to our survey was about 58%, this figure is consistent with NSF numbers, which estimates that nonprofit-sector-funded research expenditures at higher education institutions was $4 billion in 2016. These figures, however, represent only nonprofit sources of funding at universities, and do not include spending of university endowment funds or research at nonprofit research institutions like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, so the overall impact of philanthropic funding of basic science is much greater.

While funding from foundations is limited, it can play an outsize role relative to other sources of funding –  including government, academia, and corporations – in supporting basic scientific research.

“Foundations can accelerate scientific research in ways that other sources may find difficult to do, by thinking carefully about what to support and how to support it.”

For example, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation chose the Marine Microbiology Initiative because it posed fascinating scientific questions about microbes inhabiting the oceans in a field that was under-funded by the federal government. The foundation also recognized that the field was ripe for a revolution because of the availability of gene sequencing tools, so one of its strategies invested heavily in making these tools available.

Foundations can also look for opportunities to support and encourage research that universities on their own may not, such as cross-institution collaborations. The Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), another Science Philanthropy Alliance member, conducts “Scialog” (science + dialog) workshops on specific topics like advanced energy storage, time domain astrophysics, and the chemical machinery of the cell. They invite early-career faculty members from diverse disciplines and institutions to spend three days developing interdisciplinary, cross-institution proposals; RCSA and partners then select the most promising proposals to fund. This year, the Moore Foundation is co-sponsoring RCSA’s Scialog on chemical machinery of the cell, which will take Fall 2018.

Creating new tools and infrastructure is another way that foundations can play a unique and critical role. The Moore Foundation is partnering with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to make leading edge microscopy that is not commercially available accessible to all scientists. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has been one of the early funders to create a human cell atlas, a global collaboration to map and characterize all cells in a healthy human body by their cell types, numbers, locations, relationships, and molecular components. Once complete, it will be a critical resource for scientists.

In addition to carefully considering what to fund, foundations can also have an outsize impact by thinking about how their funding can make a difference beyond specific research grants or projects. Through its initiatives, the Moore Foundation awards investigator grants, which provide researchers with adequate funding for an extended period with minimal constraints. HHMI’s Investigator program operates similarly in biomedical research, and the Simons Foundation has investigators in mathematics and theoretical physics. When federal research funding is constrained, researchers spend too much time writing proposals and reports in justification of their work. Investigator programs give scientists the freedom to explore and have led to breakthrough discoveries. The members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance have made a wide variety of choices about how to fund research: the Simons Foundation and HHMI have created independent research institutions and The Kavli Foundation endows institutes at universities, for example.

“A great strength of foundations is that they can be laboratories for different funding mechanisms.”

Ultimately, despite its smaller scale of funding, philanthropy can have an outsize impact if foundations continue to push the envelope on scientific research. Foundations are a special breed – their funding is more flexible, more nimble, and less constrained by politics. They have an opportunity not just to fund innovative research, but to seed and feed science research in ways that can have an outsize impact on the entire scientific enterprise.