Philanthropy Plays Increasing Role in Advancing Science

Philanthropy plays an important role in boosting investments in all types of science and research initiatives, experts say. | Tupungato/Adobe

Entrepreneur, filmmaker and conservationist David Evans Shaw marked the centennial of the U.S. park system by launching of an initiative dedicated to the stewardship of the nation’s most treasured canyons, forests, deserts, mountains and offshore reefs over the next century.

Shaw, a AAAS board member, treasurer and fellow, made a $1 million gift to establish the “Second Century Stewardship” initiative in June, which got underway soon afterward at Acadia National Park in Maine. At the same time, Shaw released a feature-length film that seeks to engage science to inform how best to protect the national parks. Shaw was the executive producer of the film “Second Century Stewardship: Science Beyond the Scenery in Acadia National Park.”

Juli Staiano, AAAS’ chief philanthropy officer, said Shaw is a case study of how significant altruism can help leverage scientific research for the public good. Shaw and AAAS have teamed up with the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park to raise at least another $10 million to extend the Second Century Stewardship program to other national parks that draw more than 300 million visitors a year.   

Philanthropy is playing a significant role boosting investments in all types of science, primarily through institutions such as hospitals, academic and medical facilities, said Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Pasic said recent studies show that donors, particularly those in the high net-worth categories, increasingly want to use their wealth to make an impact. “Simply giving back is less of a reason people give than having an impact,” added Pasic.

Philanthropic donations, particularly large donations, also help scientific organizations finance a broad suite of programs.

At AAAS, for example, contributions help to support programs that track federal spending on research and development  projects, provide information about how to protect the integrity of evidence collected to document human rights atrocities, give scientists extensive training to help them effectively communicate research about everything from climate change to emerging diseases.

“We’re not just a publisher. We’re not just a membership association. We’re a nonprofit with a broad range of important programs and those programs are supported in part by philanthropy,” said Staiano of AAAS.

Philanthropy intended to advance scientific understanding also gets a boost from annual efforts on “Giving Tuesday”– a global day of giving that falls on the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving and was established in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nation’s Foundation as an antidote to Black Friday and Cyber Monday to prompt charitable giving.

AAAS, like many nonprofit organizations, is participating in Giving Tuesday on 29 November, using social media and internet platforms to seek contributions and bring attention to its work and the role that philanthropy plays, said Staiano. Individuals, corporations, and foundations give more than $11 million a year to support AAAS and its efforts.

Federal budget trends are elevating the importance of science philanthropy. Matt Hourihan, director of AAAS’ R&D Budget and Policy Program, said federal support of research and development programs at universities has increased, based on 2014 data, but university research needs are outpacing federal funding levels. Universities are increasingly making up the difference through fundraising and donations.  

For example, funding raised by universities and research institutions represented 22.4% of the research and development funding for higher education in 2014, up from the 8.4% share that institutions covered in 1965, AAAS’ R&D Budget and Policy Program figures show. This comes even as overall federal funding for research and development at academic institutions continues to dwarf other sources, data show.

“It is going to be very difficult for philanthropy outside of particular projects and particular initiatives in any way to begin to substitute for what the federal government does in terms of supporting the need for basic science which is the underlying basis for everything else in terms of our research and development infrastructure,” said Pasic.

Still, Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a California-based group of philanthropic organizations focused on expanding funding for basic scientific research, said private philanthropy augments declining federal funding of basic scientific research, which is a part of research and development funding.

Basic science research leads to wide-ranging applications that contribute to U.S. economic growth. Data show, for example, every dollar spent on basic research returns anywhere from $10 to more than $80, according to the National Institute of Health.

“Private money plays a role that government doesn’t play very well,” Kastner added. “Very ambitious projects are unlikely to get through the federal screening process. Philanthropists, on the other hand, are comfortable with longer term investments, and investments without a specific application in mind, for higher potential return.”

Kastner pointed out that private money also lacks political or geographic constraints and can kick-start government programs by providing a proof-of-concept. A case in point is brain research funded by the Kavli Foundation, Paul Allen and the Gatsby Institute. It laid the ground work for President Barack Obama to launch the BRAIN initiative in 2014.

Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS and the executive publisher of the Science family of journals, outlined the critical role for science philanthropy in a speech in late May. Charitable giving benefits science when priorities are set, duplicative efforts avoided and the expected impact is quantified, Holt said. 

Shaw’s “Second Century Stewardship” initiative fulfilled those requirements and is already delivering on its promise to advance science in contributing to the study of the biodiversity in soil, intertidal and freshwater habitats at Acadia National Park.

Elizabeth “Abbey” L. Paulson, the first participant in the Second Century Stewardship fellowship program, has been collecting DNA samples from those three habitats to create a census of the park’s biodiversity to advance understanding of how organisms in the park adapt to environmental changes.

Shaw, who also has served as a trustee of The National Park Foundation, has more recently been working with others to expand the nation’s marine parks and monuments to mark the National Park System’s centennial.

“A theme for the next century of the national parks is stewardship,” said Shaw. “It’s taking this vast information we have, courtesy of modern science, and using that science to understand things so we can manage the parks wisely to benefit the future.

“Beautiful scenery is just fine, but the scientific understanding beyond the beautiful scenery is really what engages people in stewardship.”

[Associated Image: Tupungato/Adobe]