A Vision for the Future of Science Philanthropy
Philanthropy will play a critical role in shaping the conduct of science over the coming decades. Getting it right will require adopting practices that further the scientific enterprise while simultaneously helping to move society toward greater collective well-being.
Although we can envision many ways that the scientific enterprise might evolve in the future, an often-overlooked component will surely play an essential role: science philanthropy. By this we mean the provision of charitable giving for science or technology research by individual donors or foundations. As Robert Conn, past president and chief executive officer of The Kavli Foundation, details in his overview of the emergence of philanthropic giving for research, science philanthropy has always played a critical and leading role in America’s approach to research and development, with a history that predates much of the federal funding apparatus.
Today, the landscape of science philanthropy is rapidly changing. It consists of both established and newer foundations, a constellation of institutions including organizations with an illustrious history of giving for research as well as entities created more recently. Collectively, science philanthropy accounts for at least $2 billion in annual support for research. If we include spending from university endowments that supports research at those institutions, the total impact of philanthropy on science is estimated to be as much as $20 billion per year. There are now over 30 members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a group of foundations interested in helping increase giving for basic research—up fivefold from the alliance’s six founding members in 2013.
Of course, the entire research ecosystem has evolved considerably from the vision Vannevar Bush famously espoused more than 75 years ago in Science, the Endless Frontier. Humanity faces problems more severe, perhaps, than at any other time in our history. While Bush barely discussed the role of charitable giving, we are now at a moment when philanthropy must be considered an integral element of the scientific enterprise. Science philanthropy has arrived at an important stage in its evolution. As Conn notes in his article, there are now numerous established science philanthropies that have a long and distinguished history of shaping the direction of scientific research, with many of these institutions marking their centennial anniversaries over the coming decades. Similarly, as indicated by the rapid membership growth of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, many new donors are emerging with an interest in supporting cutting-edge science.
For these reasons, in both scale and scope science philanthropy is positioned to play a crucial complementary role to the much larger, but sometimes unwieldly and bureaucratic, federal funding agencies. Having grown substantially in magnitude since the publication of Science, the Endless Frontier, science philanthropy is now both significant enough in terms of dollars spent and prominent enough in many scientific fields to influence what research is pursued. At the same time, philanthropy remains sufficiently bounded and manageable—in terms of the number and size of institutions involved—to allow adjustments to be made flexibly and deftly.
If science is to accomplish all that society hopes it will in the years ahead, philanthropy will need to be an important contributor to those developments. It is therefore critical that philanthropic funders understand how to maximize science philanthropy’s contribution to the research enterprise. Given these stakes, what will science philanthropy need to get right in the coming years in order to have a positive impact on the scientific enterprise and to help move society toward greater collective well-being?
The answer, we argue, is that science philanthropies will increasingly need to serve a broader purpose. They certainly must continue to provide funding to promote new discoveries throughout the physical and social sciences. But they will also have to provide this support in a manner that takes account of the implications for society, shaping both the content of the research and the way it is pursued. To achieve this dual goal of positive scientific and societal impact, we identify four particular dimensions of the research enterprise that philanthropies will need to advance: seeding new fields of research, broadening participation in science, fostering new institutional practices, and deepening links between science and society. If funders attend assiduously to all these dimensions, we hope that when people look back 75 years from now, science philanthropy will have fully realized its extraordinary potential.
New areas of research
Naturally, the most important factor determining science philanthropy’s impact on society over the coming years relates to the very research questions, topics, methodologies, and domains that foundations choose to support. Given the high degree of freedom that science philanthropies enjoy in selecting which research areas to address, it is not surprising that what research science philanthropy decides to support will shape the trajectory of discovery.
In particular, science philanthropies will need to balance the desire to see near-term impact from research they support with the need to advance speculative basic research laying the groundwork for discovery that might only come to fruition years or even decades in the future. Since many philanthropies are designed to exist in perpetuity, they can choose to be highly tolerant of risk, and thus they can support investigations that would likely be difficult to fund with federal dollars. A recent and very salient example of the simultaneous importance of near-term and long-term goals relates to COVID-19: philanthropic giving laid the conceptual groundwork for the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine by supporting basic biomedical research in the preceding decades, while also being instrumental in assisting with the vaccine’s distribution and rollout. This capacity to act quickly while keeping an eye on the horizon needs to remain a quintessential feature of science philanthropy.
So what kind of research should science philanthropy fund going forward? One of the most important roles that foundations can play is to support research that draws on more than one discipline, both because the most creative scholarship is often pursued near and across disciplinary boundaries and because work that spans disciplines in new ways is notoriously difficult to slot into existing categories supported by federal funding agencies. In particular, science philanthropies can focus their resources to help transfer tools, techniques, and insights from one domain to another, unlocking previously unrealized lines of inquiry.
Examples of this kind of intervention abound and can be built upon in the years ahead. For instance, The Kavli Foundation supports a set of research institutes around the world where scientists apply advanced computational, imaging, and visualization techniques in disciplines as varied as astrophysics, theoretical physics, neuroscience, and nanoscience. Similarly, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) is an excellent example of how combining data science and basic research can spur incredible discovery. In operation for over 25 years and now one of the most productive and highly cited surveys in the history of astronomy, the key aspect of SDSS’s success was the pioneering application of sophisticated data science analysis and storage techniques to astronomy and cosmology. As one of the first “big data” projects in basic science, SDSS helped set the stage for adoption of these approaches in other disciplines.
Moreover, with the encouragement of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation from the outset, SDSS developed the routine practice of publicly releasing all of its available data at regular intervals. Doing so facilitated the widespread use of the survey’s findings and has informed the design of subsequent research projects in astronomy and other fields. The Sloan Foundation’s technology program has supported expansion of such data-sharing approaches and platforms to other research areas. For example, it has funded an extension of the SDSS data science platform, now known as SciServer, to be applicable to numerous research domains beyond astronomy. These kinds of philanthropically supported programs are transforming what research gets done, addressing the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration, and facilitating the sharing of tools and techniques across research areas.
Of equal importance, we believe that more attention needs to be paid to advancing interdisciplinary research that links the social and natural sciences. For instance, the Sloan Foundation’s energy and environment program has a focus on facilitating multidisciplinary collaborations that can make progress on decarbonizing energy systems. This strategic approach was set in recognition that energy system decarbonization requires the integration of research from fields as diverse as economics, politics, energy systems analysis, atmospheric science, chemistry, geology, and oceanography. Whether it is examining the role new carbon dioxide removal technologies might play in future energy systems or exploring new ways of decarbonizing various sectors of the economy, grants provided in this program regularly support interdisciplinary scholarship using both qualitative and quantitative research, making both empirical and theoretical contributions.
The hardest problems the planet faces, such as climate change, cannot be solved without combining the methods and discoveries of natural science, technology, and social science in deeply integrated ways. Science philanthropy is especially well positioned to address such broadly interdisciplinary questions because foundation programs can be deliberately structured around solving specific problems and supporting interdisciplinary research, unlike government funding programs largely organized along disciplinary lines. This is one of the benefits of the flexibility that characterizes philanthropic grantmaking. Resources can be provided for any number of strategic purposes—to start a new project, to address unfunded research gaps, to extend existing work in new directions, to encourage collaborative use of instruments and tools, and so on—that, if approached with considered intention, can help advance interdisciplinary research.
New participants in science
Science cannot flourish without vibrant, inclusive, and diverse communities of excellent researchers, communities that are continually renewed with emerging talent. Achieving this vision will require attracting and retaining scientists from every corner of society, changing who participates in the scientific enterprise.
A number of science philanthropies focus particularly on supporting early-career researchers looking to move their fields of inquiry forward. The numerous programs of this kind include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Program, the Schmidt Science Fellows program, and the Sloan Research Fellowships, just to name a few. These programs ensure that scholars at the beginning of their careers have the resources to push the boundaries of knowledge in their fields. Such investments in young investigators, even if modest in scale, have long been understood to be especially vital contributions that foster robust research communities.
This work of building new communities of researchers cannot be fully achieved if diversity, equity, and inclusion are not made explicit, core considerations of philanthropic grantmaking. Many science philanthropies recognize the essential need to diversify the research enterprise by drawing on the widest possible talent pool. Even more so than government funders, private philanthropy has the freedom and flexibility to target research funding strategically by more intentionally involving scholars from underrepresented groups and better accounting for the impact of research on underserved communities.
Freeman Hrabowski and Peter Henderson of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), write that perhaps the best example of a case in which philanthropic giving has successfully helped diversify the scientific enterprise is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Initially implemented at UMBC, the program involves a comprehensive and inclusive model of training and support for students from underrepresented communities in science and engineering. It includes not just financial support for individual students, but a series of “wraparound” components that promote more collaborative learning environments, such as summer training sessions, small study groups, and extensive faculty mentoring and administration involvement. With support from science philanthropies like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, this model is being replicated at other universities across the country.
Beyond supporting individuals, many science philanthropy efforts are designed to bring about deeper systemic change and address the institutional and community-level barriers faced by scientists from underrepresented groups. For instance, the Sloan Foundation supports two programs, the University Centers for Exemplary Mentoring and the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership, with the goal of achieving systemic change in how students are recruited and trained across a range of scientific and technological disciplines, including chemistry, mathematics, computer science, physics, agricultural sciences, and civil and environmental engineering.
Science philanthropies can also thread considerations of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout their strategic planning, operational, and grantee selection processes. Doing so, and doing so visibly, sends an important message to the research community. The Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom has been a leader on this front, examining the culture of doctoral education and shining light on many of the invisible barriers to success, such as mental health challenges, that students—especially those from underrepresented groups—face. Many other foundations have reviewed and updated their grantmaking processes to account for diversity factors. For instance, the Sloan Foundation requires every prospective grantee to directly address how their project will contribute to broadening participation in the research enterprise. The firm, consistent pressure to make diversity and inclusion part of the core conversation about the design of research projects has the potential to profoundly change the character of research environments.
New institutional practices
Science philanthropy also has the capability to advance new institutional practices that will be crucial to facilitating the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary science of the decades ahead. These emerging approaches can reshape how the research enterprise operates by addressing some of the rigid institutional structures that can hinder the advance of science.
Given the wide variety of approaches that science philanthropies pursue, one such bottleneck that often arises is the challenge of coordinating collaborative funding across foundations. Former National Science Foundation director and current president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance France Córdova describes how this desire to foster collaboration among philanthropies was one of the motivations for forming the Science Philanthropy Alliance: to introduce new donors to the underlying practices associated with funding basic research and to better link existing foundations working in this space.
Some science funders have addressed this challenge head-on in their operational strategy–in particular, the innovative approach to collaborative funding developed by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA). RCSA has taken the lead on organizing a series of science-oriented dialogues, known as Scialogs, that encourage small groups of early career scholars to work together and quickly propose speculative ideas that explore new research frontiers. A subset of these proposals is then selected for support by RCSA and its philanthropic partners, which have included foundations such as the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation, among others. This flexible partnership approach to funding science has led to creative study of questions such as searching for signatures of life in the universe, examining the chemical machinery of the cell, developing negative emissions interventions to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and studying linkages among the microbiome, neurobiology, and disease.
Still other novel modes of philanthropic support for science are increasingly doing away with the traditional structures of philanthropy altogether. One such practice is for philanthropies to establish research entities themselves, giving them the ability to directly shape the direction of research and ensure that these new organizational structures reflect their own interests and values. For example, creating an entirely integrated research infrastructure can better allow for the advancement of collaborative team science. A prominent case of this alternative institutional practice is the Flatiron Institute at the Simons Foundation. The Flatiron Institute has helped to integrate computational research capacities with leading scholars in fields such as astrophysics, biology, mathematics, and quantum physics, providing a link with sophisticated data science resources that might be hard to access at many universities. Another example is the Allen Institute, a philanthropic institution composed of a number of research teams in the fields of neuroscience, cell science, and immunology.
A related approach is to build and maintain instruments and research infrastructure for the scientific community in order to change and direct research practices. While there is a long history of science philanthropy providing external support for large-scale instrumentation and infrastructure such as telescopes and observatories, the phenomenon of foundations’ managing instrumentation in-house is rather new. For instance, the Schmidt Ocean Institute does not give grants to researchers in a traditional sense, but instead is outfitting a state-of-the-art oceangoing research vessel and allowing researchers to utilize this resource by providing instrumentation testing, technical assistance, data management, and standardization of reporting results. The Dalio Philanthropies is pursuing a similar strategy, developing a high-tech oceangoing research enterprise, called OceanX, that not only features a suite of customized research equipment to conduct ocean science, but includes an advanced multimedia studio capable of sharing research findings and scientific results with the general public.
New links between science and society
Over the past 75 years, discussions surrounding the social contract for science have been significantly guided by the basic premise of Bush’s report: government funding allows scientists to pursue curiosity-driven research, which results in new products, applications, and technologies that benefit society. Yet this hands-off approach to realizing public benefit misses a lot, and there are elements of the science-society relationship that are neglected in Bush’s formulation. Science philanthropy can help by deepening public understanding of why science does what it does and how discoveries can best be directed to improve people’s lives.
One way to bridge this gap is by supporting the infusion of science throughout the broader culture. The Sloan Foundation has a long-standing program aimed at improving the public understanding of science, technology, and economics by funding creative projects across many types of media. This effort includes the production of books, films, television, radio, and theater programming, and other forms of artistic expression to engage the public about the role science plays in the arts, humanities, and everyday life—from research itself to stories of discovery to the lives of practitioners. Many of the most compelling stories have a significance that extends beyond research findings and technical discovery. For instance, the Sloan-supported book Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was later made into a movie, is both about telling the story of how mathematics got humans to the Moon and about honoring the underappreciated Black women who were indispensable to that breakthrough effort. Other science philanthropies have developed similar programmatic and grantmaking ventures related to science, communication, and public engagement, creating a growing collection of outputs that explore the myriad intersections between science and society.
A particularly impactful strategy that philanthropies can pursue to bolster the science-society relationship is to bring scientists into policy-relevant roles, placing scholars and those with technical expertise in federal, state, local, and nonprofit institutions. For instance, the Rita Allen Foundation and The Kavli Foundation have supported cohorts of Civic Science Fellows that embed researchers in such public-oriented positions. Additionally, a number of science philanthropies have supported scientists participating in the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with the Moore Foundation and Simons Foundation supporting the development of state-level versions of these programs around the country. Many science foundations, led by Schmidt Futures, have supported establishment of the Day One Project, which engages scientists to introduce novel, actionable science policy ideas into public discourse.
Finally, there are growing developments to further engage the public by expanding both who gives to science and who conducts science. The rising prominence of crowdfunding platforms for scientific research, on sites such as Experiment and Kickstarter, has increased opportunities for scientists to go directly to the general public to secure funding for research. Although the amount of money received by a project is often relatively small, especially compared with amounts raised from philanthropic or government sources, these platforms also democratize the funding of science.
The rise of crowdfunding is, in many ways, a counterpart to the rise of citizen science, which has begun to influence how research is conducted in a variety of fields. Science philanthropy has helped to accelerate interest in citizen science, funding the development of easy-to-use instrumentation and access to shared platforms that allow members of the public to participate in large-scale science projects by collecting and analyzing data. In the past, the Sloan Foundation has helped to bolster citizen science platforms such as Zooniverse and SciStarter, and philanthropies such as the Simons Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and Burroughs Wellcome Fund have supported citizen science efforts as well. As they continue to gain traction, citizen science activities can help connect the research enterprise with broader society by engaging a wider range of stakeholders in the research process.
Potential perils and pitfalls in science philanthropy
The substantial discretion that science philanthropies enjoy—in terms of the what, how, who, and why dimensions elucidated above—must be managed wisely and responsibly if their societal impact is to be a positive one. The flexibility of philanthropy, in contrast to that of other funders, carries pitfalls to be avoided so as not to compromise the effectiveness of philanthropic giving for science.
One such potential danger arises if scientific projects that capture the imagination of a funder are not thoughtfully designed to move a field forward in productive ways. Such missteps can reflect mistakes not only of what to fund, but also of how and whom to fund. Shortcomings could include not addressing diversity considerations sufficiently early enough in the life of a research project or not paying attention to important matters such as data sharing or availability.
A second and related danger is that a funder may develop idiosyncratic enthusiasm for particular projects, thereby not consulting sufficiently with a broad range of knowledgeable experts to inform grantmaking decisions or attending to only a small number of viewpoints about which programmatic areas to pursue. The concern here is that a handful of voices, potentially drawn from the fringes of a field or from those with particular agendas to advance, may wield an outsize influence on what research questions science philanthropies pursue.
A third potential pitfall is giving in to impatience or inconsistency in setting strategy or selecting priority areas. As with any funder, foundations can succumb to a temptation to favor short-term “wins” over the long view. All too often, when they shift focus and funding strategy, foundations do so without fully realizing the impact it has on grantee communities. Science philanthropies need to provide a stream of consistent resources over a long enough period of time to have a hope of making research progress or having a significant impact on decisions related to complex societal questions. Especially when funding does come to an end, science philanthropies can help prepare their grantees for success by helping them think about sustainability and long-term planning, whether that means looking for opportunities to be incorporated into government funding programs, designing and experimenting with alternative funding models, or simply winding down research projects responsibly. Even beyond dollars, foundation staff can draw on their systemic view of a field to provide this kind of perspective and guidance.
Fourth, science philanthropies need to appreciate the dangers associated with spreading resources too thinly—or, conversely, with putting so much money into a single area that it cannot be productively deployed. We recognize that determining a suitable balance to this breadth versus depth question can be difficult, and we acknowledge that how such decisions are made depends on each institution’s resources and priorities. However, this is a set of trade-offs that science philanthropies need to contemplate regularly to avoid the risk of becoming too myopic or too diffuse.
Fifth, and perhaps most consequentially, science philanthropies face the overarching challenge of needing to take a systemic approach to every aspect of their work. Without that, funders can fall too easily into the trap of operating under a narrow, instrumental view of science funding, one that fails to account for the entire ecosystem in which science takes place—from the individual situations facing researchers to the need to ensure the health of institutions where science occurs and the challenges of linking scientific research to societal impact.
Societal responsibility and strategic philanthropy
With relatively few external constraints, it is absolutely critical that science philanthropies develop a strong and consistent internal rudder, a compass by which they deliberately devise strategies to avoid these perils and pitfalls. They must establish boundaries wisely to provide sufficient guidance for the work they do without being so restrictive that new and creative ideas get filtered out.
Science philanthropies should draw explicitly on their mission, culture, history, and values to establish practices and procedures to guide their grantmaking. We recognize that, for new funders, building such structures from scratch is difficult. One solution is for them to learn from institutions with a long history of honing operational, structural, and review practices that have allowed them to navigate these thorny issues. Additionally, the approaches sketched in this article can help serve as such guideposts, linked together by the broad imperative of societal responsibility.
Science philanthropies can and should explicitly find practical ways of linking support for basic science with achieving beneficial societal outcomes. In Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology, one of us (Michelson) suggests that foundations draw on the notion of responsible research and innovation (RRI) to regularly review, assess, and adjust their roles in the research ecosystem. The RRI framework, more widely used in Europe, can lead science philanthropies to think more purposefully about how to anticipate new research directions, center deliberation and inclusion at the heart of their endeavors, and regularly reflect about how societal responsibility can be achieved.
Putting all these elements together, we think a vision for societally responsible science philanthropy is both achievable and sustainable. Many of the procedures and practices critical to realizing this goal are already in place, and we are confident that many more examples of science philanthropy’s powerful potential to improve our world will emerge over time. As with every sector of society, those of us in science philanthropy face many unknowns as we move into the years ahead. In the face of uncertainty, operating with the intent of achieving responsible societal impact with the what, the how, the who, and the why of our grantmaking is the surest way for science philanthropies to make the world the better place that we aspire for it to be.