PURPOSE AND FOCUS
Basic research fuels our future. Some discoveries have immediate applications, while the value of others only becomes evident over a course of years or decades. However, each piece of new knowledge is invaluable, particularly as we develop the data science tools to exploit more and more knowledge.
The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) fosters discovery from the nanoscale up through population scale and beyond to the farthest reaches of the universe. We are also leading the way to discover causality within big data and develop new architectures for organizing, integrating, analyzing, and visualizing these data.
We recognize, however, that at the heart of this work must be discovery that is not constrained by narrowly focused funding opportunities that seek achievement of outcome-driven specific aims. We therefore establish the Funding the Future program to exclusively support the most basic research efforts driven by compelling questions in the physical and life sciences.
We draw on the model of the MacArthur 100andChange Program in leaving our Funding the Future applicants free to name their question and their approach. As with MacArthur, we will use a two-stage application process; those who move on will receive mentorship in developing their advanced application and in better communicating their science.
In addition to supporting an innovative application process, we embrace donors who wish to be involved with more than writing a check. Donors will be invited to participate at each step of Funding the Future: judging videos, announcing winners, and providing feedback to applicants and awardees on their science communication skills. Donors will also get hands-on experience with how basic science – often decades in the making – is translated into the clinic and public health settings, and the role of University in ensuring that nothing is lost in translation.
While Pitt’s scientific peers have scored it 5th in NIH funding, and the NIH has picked Pitt as the first site in which to launch the Precision Medicine Initiative, the most important reasons to invest in Pitt basic research do not hinge on science-related bragging, as all leading research universities have an abundance of expertise, strengths, and accomplishments.
Rather, Pitt – and Pittsburgh – is a wise investment, as evidenced by a number of “best of” lists and the rapid expansion of established and start-up companies in the science economy. Our low cost of living means your donations go farther and have greater impact. In Pittsburgh, you will join a historic and collegial philanthropy community known for long-standing committed relationships and ongoing involvement, and the entire city will be deeply grateful. That is, you will be personally recognized – not be lost in a donor crowd.
WHO IS ELIGIBLE
The University of Pittsburgh has a strong track record of internally identifying exceptional scientists for special support and recognition, including slots on our Institutional Career Development Awards (K12, KL2), recipients of pilot and bridge funding, and endowed faculty positions. We recognize that ideas for creative basic research can occur at any career stage – and that the availability of extramural grant funding to support pursuit of these novel ideas is not a given at every career stage, even among the most senior scientists. We encourage collaborations that span both disciplines and career stages, so multiple avenues of cross fertilization are available, and we welcome input from donors.
APPLICATION AND REVIEW
We will operate the Funding the Future competition, again, focused exclusively on basic research in the physical and life sciences, on the Powered-by-PInCh online platform maintained by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), which has been used for a wide range of University-wide competitions, such as the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh), Pain, and AR3T. Competitions will be held annually and more frequently based on donor interest in supporting a specific solicitation.
The first phase of a Funding the Future competition will involve the submission of a 2-minute video and brief written abstract. All videos will be reviewed for scientific merit by scientists with expertise that is appropriate for the proposal. For those applicants who opt to make theirs publicly available, videos can be viewed and voted on by the public, and donors will be invited to vote as well. Semifinalists will be announced at a Funding the Future event open to all applicants, donors, and the Pitt community.
Scientists with the top 5 video submissions will begin a mentored second phase of application development. Although they will be focused on the Funding the Future competition, applicants will receive guidance in how to generate interest from other potential sponsors and in how to reach out to, communicate with, and engage the public, industry, foundations, policy makers, and other interested stakeholders.
The second application phase will involve a more detailed proposal. All semifinalists will also give a public 2-minute summary at the final award event to Funding the Future judges, donor(s), invited stakeholders, and the Pitt community, so the most innovative basic science gets as broad an audience as possible.
TYPE OF SUPPORT
The level and structure of individual Funding the Future competitions will depend on donor wishes, and we can work with donors to determine the appropriate framework for their awards, such as seed funding to test new ideas or endowment-level support to sustain discovery over the long term. Funding the Future itself is a new program, and we are happy to customize the competition and awards in partnership with donors. In the absence of specific donor guidance, we will offer both discovery stage (~$50,000) and development stage ($100,000+) awards.
Indeed, the University has a long history of supporting its faculty’s basic research, which is ripe for expansion into this novel philanthropic format. Funding the Future complements several existing internal funding programs intended to advance basic research, such as the Competitive Medical Research Fund ($25,000-$35,000), the Bridge Fund (variable), PInCh (variable up to $100,000), the Revolution Fund (variable), the Central Research Development Fund (up to $16,000), and various pilot project programs (~$25,000). Each program has its own established application, award process, and target researcher pool. However, none of these intramural competitions has the funds nor the scope to launch or maintain major basic research programs that are too cutting edge for federal agencies and too preliminary for industry support. Opportunities will always exist, though, to leverage these ongoing internal programs to enhance initiatives that arise from Funding the Future donors.
In addition, donors can provide support via alternatives to cash awards, such as equipment, commercial services, laboratory construction or renovation, or computing resources (hardware purchase and support, software licensing, cloud server space and cycles, etc.).
In addition to supporting individual projects with discrete awards, we invite you to consider a “portfolio approach” to supporting basic research. Again, Pitt can help you customize any Funding the Future portfolio based on your personal passion, but examples of such portfolios include:
- Brain – Pitt has diverse strengths in brain-related research, including brain-computer interface, optogenetics-driven discoveries, psychometabolomics, neural underpinnings of the mind-body connection, and the biological basis of neurodegeneration following traumatic brain injury.
- Aging – Pitt tackles the biology of aging from many fundamental angles, ranging from genome stability to the mechanisms of cognitive and sensory decline.
- Quantum Mechanics – Pitt researchers across the physical sciences are harnessing the laws of quantum mechanics into transformative technologies such as quantum computing, quantum communication, and quantum sensing.
- Immunology – Pitt is learning to harness the immune system both to promote healthy aging and to prevent and treat disorders ranging from cancer to autoimmune disease.
- Physical, Environmental, and Social Determinants of Health Across the Lifespan: Pitt scientists are collaborating to determine how adult health is affected by in utero and childhood exposures as well as environmental and social determinants of health over the lifespan.
THREE BASIC SCIENCE STORIES
Many transformative technologies and treatments began with a good question asked decades prior to media announcements celebrating the ultimate social benefit. For example:
- In the mid-80s, a neurobiology grad student (A. Schwartz) with both vision and passion embarked on three-decade journey to restore independent movement to paralyzed patients – a journey that started with an early discovery that neurons have a preferred orientation for processing movement. That is, neurons pointing straight out will preferentially fire when moving your arm straight out, while others oriented in the corresponding direction fire when the movement is to the right or to the left. This simple basic discovery made possible present-day brain-computer interfaces that allow paralyzed individuals to control robotic arms and experience tactile sensations – and is rapidly leading to the ability of these patients to control their own “paralyzed” limb rather than a robotic device.
- Also in the 80s, an ophthalmologist (J. Sahel) realized he could never understand how to restore light and sight to blind patients without a fundamental understanding of the eye and the brain. His decades of molecular genetics and developmental biology work have culminated in his harnessing the light-sensing mechanism of single-celled organisms paired with a sophisticated camera worn as a pair of glasses that serves as an artificial retina, sending its signal to the back of the human eye for transmission through the optic nerve to the brain for processing. He is working on this and other innovative approaches to restore sight lost to macular degeneration and other disorders that rob vision.
- In the past decade, a condensed matter physicist (M. Hatridge) began exploring the use of pulses of microwave light to carry quantum information. Quantum information and computing exploit the ability of a qubit (the quantum equivalent of a computer bit) to exist simultaneously in a range of different states (not just 0 or 1), though this powerful capability in turn makes them very unstable. By making qubits out of superconductors and developing techniques to decode and record information contained in pulses of microwave light, he hopes to overcome the major challenge of ensuring the integrity of quantum information. Separately, he also launched an Artist-in-Residence program in the Pitt Department of Physics and Astronomy in which artists embed themselves in a lab to envision and then create visual, written, or music compositions that reflect their response to and connection with the scientific research being conducted.
These and scores of similar Pitt stories illustrate the hidden decades of basic research, whose ultimate value or success cannot be envisioned at the outset, that are needed to enable the exciting scientific advances we see in the world today. Scientists such as these who have persevered in their basic research fuel our passion – and yours – for funding the future.