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New Coalition Aims to Increase Philanthropic Funding of Basic Science

Seven foundations have formed a coalition with the aim of increasing support for basic science among the nation’s philanthropists and foundations, Robert Conn, president of The Kavli Foundation, announced on 2 May. The group hopes to double philanthropic support in this area of U.S. science within a decade.

The United States’ long history of federal funding for research in addition to the nation’s university system have made possible the country’s scientific successes, Conn said. Philanthropists have also long played an important role here. “If we can work together with those assets, we can make a difference for the future,” he said.

From left, Betsy Myers, Chris Mentzel, and Robert Conn. | Credit: Sarah Zielinski

Conn spoke at one of two sessions on the role of private philanthropy in research and innovation at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C.

In his remarks, Conn noted that political and economic tensions have put pressure on government funding for science. This is particularly the case for pioneering research, which is essential to advancing science but often carries a higher risk of failure. Basic science researchers also need the latitude to go where their findings lead, even if their research takes them in unexpected directions, he said.

Government agencies, however, tend to be risk averse and favor projects with clear and tangible outcomes, despite downsides to such conservative funding. “If you’re succeeding all the time, you’re clearly not aiming high enough,” said Chris Mentzel, program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Data-Driven Discovery/Science Program.

The new coalition plans to help focus non-government resources on “high risk/high reward” research in complement with government programs, Conn said. Philanthropic organizations often have more freedom in their operations than do government agencies, and they can help fill this hole in science funding, several speakers noted. But they cautioned that these foundations are not big enough to compensate for any declines in government funding for science. Collectively, philanthropic ventures in the United States contribute about $2 billion per year to basic science, with 75 percent of that funding for medical and biological research, Conn noted. The federal government, in contrast, spent around $30 billion on basic research in 2011. While there is a vast difference in spending between the two sources, “it’s not just about the money,” said the National Science Foundation’s Nancy Sung, who moderated one of the sessions. Investment from philanthropic organizations is and has to be distinctly different from what is funded by government or industry, she said.

In addition to investing in projects where the goals are less defined or too high a risk for federal support, foundations can often find roles in areas of research that are underfunded or where the organization can add significant value to ongoing efforts, said Betsy Myers, program director for medical research at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

At Myers’ organization, that approach has resulted in programs that fund research on sickle cell disease, provide clinical research experiences for high school students, and support physician scientists at the beginning of their careers. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also has a diverse portfolio, with programs ranging from marine microbiology, to environmental conservation, to astronomy.

The funding for such programs tends to be small, particularly if compared to the whole of funding for biomedical science, said Mentzel, but “we are able to make a difference in the areas that we concentrate our investments.”

Susan Raymond | Credit: Sarah Zielinski

Convincing modern philanthropists to fund more basic research may not be an easy sell, however. “Many more philanthropists these days are increasing their interest in comparatively short-term impacts,” said Rodney W. Nichols, former president and chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences and moderator of the second session. Basic research in fields like neuroscience or cosmology may not fit with their goals.

The young philanthropists of today are very different from those in the past, noted Susan Raymond, executive vice president for research, evaluation and strategic planning at Changing Our World, a fund-raising consultancy. “Because Andrew Carnegie approached it one way does not mean that the 42-year-old who made his money on Facebook is going to look at it the same way,” she said.

Conn and his colleagues at the coalition appear to understand that they will need to educate these new philanthropists about the necessity of funding basic research. “If you don’t have that core of basic science, you can’t build solutions on top,” Conn said. “No matter what your philanthropic mission might be you’re probably going to end up delivering things to the area that you have a great interest in [that are] built on the shoulders of some fundamental scientific discovery.” The development of a new treatment for sickle cell disease, for example, will certainly be underpinned by basic research in cell and molecular biology, he noted.

The coalition will not, however, be dictating to organizations how to spend their money. “We need to be a resource, not a prescriber,” he said. “In that virtuous way, we’ll find a way forward.”

Conn said that the coalition will roll out their initiative over the next three to four months.