Envisioning Science for an Unknown Future
Philanthropy looks to nurture and sustain a scientific infrastructure that is both resilient and flexible.
Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.
It’s hard to imagine what science will look like 75 years from now. For that matter, no one knows what we will look like in 75 years, given current breakthroughs in gene editing and tissue engineering. Will we be launching new space missions to far-away celestial bodies, crewed by creatures that have the brains of humans and fabricated “body” parts that will not wear out over the long journey? And how will space itself be managed once many countries demonstrate their capability to build space stations and land on various other planets, moons, and asteroids in the solar system?
What will be the relative position of the United States compared to global competitors in technology such as China? Indeed, will there be new global competitors as we approach the year 2100? Will we have solved current big mysteries, like the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which we think together comprise 95% of the mass-energy content of the universe? Recall that 75 years ago no one had verified the existence of dark matter, dark energy, planets orbiting other stars, or the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. What other surprises await us as we investigate the origin, shape, and evolution of the cosmos and its often-peculiar denizens? Will we find clear evidence for life beyond Earth?
While we can hardly envision what awaits humankind in 2100, we can prepare today for a better planet, a thriving planet, one in which humanity benefits from the discoveries of science.
We can do that by shoring up today’s science infrastructure, making investments in new areas of research and new institutions for research, and embracing a new generation of potential discoverers. We can adopt carefully considered policies to preserve the integrity of science and foster trust in it. We can acknowledge and engage with a progressive international community that has like-minded goals. We can make science inclusive, recognizing how much we have to lose when it is not. We can view new ideas with respect and interest and take some risks to invest in them.
All of this depends on nurturing and sustaining a scientific infrastructure that is both resilient and flexible. Indeed, the most resilient infrastructures are the ones that are most responsive and adaptive to changing times and have a strong vision of the future.
Private philanthropists were among the earliest investors in the arts and sciences, endowing universities, museums, and libraries in the 1800s and continuing into the 1900s with investments in telescopes, agricultural science, and healthcare. As a young astrophysicist in the 1970s, using powerful telescopes paid for in the first decades of the twentieth century by private donors, I was immensely grateful for the foresight of these earlier philanthropists.
Public funding has, of course, played a much greater role in the intervening decades. Since the 1990s, however, private money has once again begun to have a greater impact—thanks to a number of new philanthropies, founded on new wealth derived from the finance, data, and information technology sectors. Some of today’s philanthropic investments complement research funded by other sectors like government or universities, and some are uniquely oriented towards specific goals identified by the funder. A growing number of private funders are also making significant investments in basic research that are critical to a resilient scientific infrastructure.
In many ways private funders can be more nimble than public institutions, can stick with a promising idea far longer, and can often even lead the way on important initiatives. For example, Frances Arnold, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, recently testified before Congress that “all three US women who have won Nobel Prizes in the sciences since 2018 were supported in their early years by the Packard Foundation. This is remarkable, and it is not a coincidence.”
At the same time that Arnold was advocating for increased funding for research, I was taking on a new role working with the Science Philanthropy Alliance—a network of funders who are committed to increasing philanthropic support for basic research in the sciences. Among other goals and activities, the Alliance shares innovative practices for funding science among private philanthropies—particularly with respect to hiring a talented and diverse staff, consulting expert science advisors to guide the effort, designing optimal funding strategies, and, when appropriate, staying involved with the aspirations and discoveries of new initiatives.
Since its formation by six private funders in 2013, the Alliance has focused on advising foundations new and old, sharing successful models, organizing and staffing shared interest groups, vetting promising partnerships, and always working toward increased philanthropic funding for basic science.
Private philanthropists have a large menu of questions to consider. How do they match funders with grantees and in doing so include all talented people with great ideas? How do they identify—or even generate—new big science ideas worthy of funding? How can they best accelerate discovery? How can they tie basic scientific research to inclusive, equitable societal outcomes? How can they analyze outcomes to determine which practices are best to nurture and repeat? What should be the role of science philanthropy—not only on the national stage but in the world?
I am happy to say that the Science Philanthropy Alliance now counts more than 30 foundations—some prominent, some emerging—among its membership.
Private philanthropy’s advantages
There can be no doubt that future scientific endeavors will require public funding—just as today’s research initiatives do. There simply is no other source of funds that provides the necessary scale that government budgets can provide. Yet, importantly, private philanthropy offers particular advantages that complement the overall scientific landscape. Some examples illustrate how philanthropy is uniquely positioned to support the scientific research enterprise.
Private funders can serve as incubators for new challenges that need scientific research. When Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg were looking to create a philanthropic initiative, Nobel Prize winners Harold Varmus and David Baltimore pointed the nascent organization to the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Marc Kastner, founding president of the Alliance, and Valerie Conn, its vice president, met frequently with staff from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) for about a year before the public announcement of the initiative’s commitment of $3 billion over a decade. The Alliance provided advice on the formation and management of a science advisory board. It also connected CZI to funders and scientists to inform the leadership on topics from science to immigration to grants management. The Alliance helped CZI prepare the scientific and philanthropic communities for the rollout of the initiative’s unprecedented commitment to basic science. In the years since, it has aided CZI’s staff recruitment and partnerships with other philanthropic organizations. Today CZI is a member of the Alliance.
To get a good sense of the hard work involved in starting a new foundation intent on funding basic scientific research, consider the story of Ross Brown, an engineer and entrepreneur who was able to start a fellowship program to identify and fund “the restless minds” (his words) that want to take scientific risks.
Private funders can stick with a good project longer than many public institutions. Case in point: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project, whose history has been well documented by Evan Michelson. This project began over 25 years ago, and one of the ingredients of its scientific success has been the staying power of its philanthropic funder, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The project was initiated to statistically analyze massive data sets produced by telescope observations of the sky. It has encouraged from its inception a culture of open data to accelerate discovery. Foundation program officer Michelson has said that it required a willingness to take risks and much patience on the part of the Sloan Foundation to invest in the project over decades, but it was well worth it in terms of discoveries made—including the largest three-dimensional map of the universe, insights into the origin and evolution of galaxies, and one of the most precise measurements of the cosmic expansion rate over the last 4 billion years.
Private funders can support new discoveries in basic science by leveraging the investments that government, industry, and university groups have already made. The Galactic Center Group at the University of California, Los Angeles provides a timely example of this kind of synergy. Led by Andrea Ghez, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020, the group has been conducting research on the center of the Milky Way galaxy for more than 25 years, supported by government and private sources. Among its many accomplishments is proving the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Ghez’s team was also able to make the first direct test of Einstein’s equivalence principle (measuring the gravitational redshift) in the vicinity of this black hole.
Whereas support from the National Science Foundation and NASA has been vital to the group’s research efforts, those agencies do not fund astronomy centers (in the way they fund, for example, artificial intelligence or quantum science centers) because their limited funds for astronomy generally go instead to build large telescopes and instruments. (The NASA-funded Hubble Space Telescope center is an exception.) This gap is where individuals and philanthropic foundations have stepped in with private funding, giving researchers the flexibility to try new approaches in a focused environment. In fact, while federal support was important to individual researchers during the earlier years of Ghez’s Galactic Center Group, foundations have been its dominant source of support every year since 2013.
Philanthropic support was also important in the earliest days of the Vera Rubin Observatory because it invested in demonstrating proof of difficult technical concepts, thus paving the way for later substantial government investment.
Today’s pressing issues call for increased investment in science. Such challenges as coping with a virulent worldwide pandemic and preparing for future pandemics, global environmental changes, addressing the quality and quantity of the world food supply, and ensuring an ethical framework for new technologies such as artificial intelligence and gene editing have spawned a new generation of philanthropists open to novel approaches. These include beneficial collaborations with other philanthropies and other sectors, such as government, university, and industry.
Because many challenges are global in nature, the future of philanthropy must look to new approaches to engage partners beyond our nation’s borders. For example, the US Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a program spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health but with many partners in the public and private sectors, is also part of an international collaboration of researchers and organizations that seek to catalyze and advance neuroscience research as well as grapple with the ethical issues stemming from such research.
The future of philanthropy must also prioritize support for areas with gaps in research and funding. As another example, the Science Philanthropy Alliance surveyed its network in 2020 to assess COVID-19 priorities. We hosted funder-led discussions of the first vaccines and testing. Shirley Tilghman, senior science advisor to the Alliance, convened a group of more than 20 experts in infectious diseases to identify priority research areas that were underfunded. The Alliance then held an event for interested funders focused on zoonotic infections prevention, epidemiological and surveillance studies, and novel infrastructure, tools, and technologies, as well as basic research to inform therapeutic drug development. We are now following up with scientific workshops and events to explore possible funding collaborations. With funding from The Kavli Foundation, the Alliance has assembled and published several COVID-19 prequel stories to persuade new funders of the importance of investment in research on infectious diseases.
When I talk with foundation heads, the word most frequently used is “impact”—they want their investments to make a difference. For some, the driver of the future is inspiration: how can their investments support discoveries that inspire youth to become scientists and engineers? For others, it is social imperatives that drive their giving: how can scientists make discoveries that will contribute significantly to resolving societal challenges? The philanthropist of the future cares about science communication, data science, analytics, science education, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many philanthropic foundations have developed analytical tools to measure impact, and the Science Philanthropy Alliance is serving as a vehicle for sharing these tools. The Alliance serves as a convener on other shared interests too, such as how to broaden the talent pool of grantees, which includes expanding solicitations to diverse communities and organizations, recognizing the value of diverse leadership in building staff, and examining philanthropy’s policies and practices for implicit biases.
With a host of new computational and communication tools at its disposal, an alliance of philanthropic foundations can create a new, virtual kind of research park, rivaling the Tuxedo Parks, Bell Labs, and Xerox PARCs of their day. It can guide investment in the “restless minds” to address fundamental questions and surface new big ideas, including innovative solutions to the challenges we face. It can encourage imaginative partnerships that leverage the strengths of each partner and scale small ideas into big ones. And it can reach across continents and oceans to address problems that know no borders.
Every philanthropist, I think, is an architect, with a plan in her mind’s eye. Her plan is characterized by several features: awareness of change around her, including technological, social, cultural, and even political change; a keen ear open to the young scientist or engineer with a bold idea; a desire to expand the envelope of opportunity to all talent, no matter what its background; a desire to shape the future by embracing—not fearing—the human-technology interface; a desire to impact the future and its people for the better; a willingness to form deep partnerships to share best practices and realize common goals; and an appreciation of the unity of nature, from Earth to the cosmos. It is inspiring to this architect that today’s science philanthropists aim to build a better future through collaboration.