Independent Science for a Daunting Future
Nonprofit research institutions must find new ways to wield their historic strengths as they seek to expand their impact in a rapidly evolving scientific ecosystem.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on Vannevar Bush to conceive a new future for American scientific research in the waning days of World War II, Bush responded with a breathtakingly bold proposal. He called for massive, sustained federal investments in science—driven and overseen by researchers, not politicians. Bush saw this centralized model as the only means possible to assure the scientific progress that he considered essential to this nation’s future. For Bush, the “endless frontier” of science began directly at the steps of Congress. “There are areas of science in which the public interest is acute but which are likely to be cultivated inadequately if left without more support than will come from private sources,” he stated. “These areas—such as research on military problems, agriculture, housing, public health, certain medical research, and research involving expensive capital facilities beyond the capacity of private institutions—should be advanced by active Government support.”
The brilliance of Bush’s vision has been validated across 75 years of scientific discovery and innovation. Yet, when looking back at his groundbreaking report, it is both perplexing and significant that Bush—then president of the legendary Carnegie Institution for Science—barely gives a mention to the role of independent, private research institutions in supporting and advancing American science. Now, looking forward, it seems clear that independent scientific research institutions are once again at an inflection point. It is time to take a thoughtful look at these institutions’ past successes (and shortcomings) and develop a strategy that will enable them to exert a new level of leadership and help negotiate the complexities of an increasingly challenging future.
For the first decades of the twentieth century, independently funded private organizations held the reins of discovery science. The Carnegie Institution, endowed by its founder with a then eye-popping $22 million, set the international standard for astronomy, biology and Earth science. Bell Laboratories, initially founded to develop commercial telecommunications technologies, grew into a research powerhouse, making groundbreaking discoveries that included radio astronomy, sonar, and first-generation computing. The Rockefeller Foundation’s largesse launched the study of molecular biology, while the Guggenheim Foundation’s investment in wind tunnels and other aircraft-testing equipment at universities across the country essentially created the academic discipline of aeronautical engineering.
Yet even the greatest scientific achievements enabled by the private sector were dwarfed by the massive scientific advances driven by the war effort in the 1940s. As director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, Bush knew firsthand that no private sector endeavor could ever hope to match the scale of a Manhattan Project. So, in his response to Roosevelt’s request, Bush focused his advocacy on the urgent need for federal funding on an unprecedented scale. His fervent demands were heeded, leading to more than seven decades of public funding that has yielded immeasurable dividends in US prosperity, health, and national security.
The rise of the federal government as the primary funder of American scientific research gave private research institutions a new freedom and a new responsibility. Relinquishing leadership of the scientific enterprise to the federal government made it possible for independent research institutions to fund unconventional, even eccentric lines of inquiry, ranging from basic science to medicine, energy, and environmental science. Again and again, their independent approach led to significant discoveries—as when Carnegie’s astronomer Vera Rubin ignored conventional wisdom and persisted in studying the rotation of spiral galaxies, making observations that eventually confirmed the existence of dark matter and revolutionized humans’ understanding of the universe. Or with virologist Renato Dulbecco’s study of oncogenes, which earned him and his colleagues the Nobel Prize and paved the way for the Salk Institute to carve out a leadership role in cancer research, producing decades of discoveries that have transformed scientists’ basic understanding of disease and have saved lives.
But looking toward a future shadowed by the existential challenges of galloping climate change and global pandemics, it is clear that all independent research institutions must find new ways to adjust their historic strengths to the needs of a changing world if these institutions are to retain their position and expand their influence in the research ecosystem.
The challenge is increased by the need to make necessary changes while staying true to the priorities of the founders and funders who have made this work possible. It is a difficult needle to thread. Many large, well-established, independent, privately endowed research institutions and foundations that have the financial capacity to make a meaningful contribution to climate science must contend with the legacy of founders whose massive fortunes were accumulated through carbon exploitation and emission. These institutions must learn to honor their founders while acknowledging the environmental and social devastation that may have been left in their wake, and they must be forthright in addressing troubling aspects of their own organizational histories. These institutions also must find ways to reassure loyal longtime supporters that candor about the founders’ flaws enables these organizations to maintain and even expand their legacies in an evolving social context.
These institutions also face the sometimes daunting task of expressing the urgency and revolutionary potential of their research to the public. Basic science research and exploration may seem dry in comparison to the contributions of philanthropic organizations whose annual reports showcase examples of their emotionally compelling work, illustrated by gripping images of people in desperate circumstances. Independent research institutions can feel reticent to celebrate intellectual discoveries when confronted with pressing, immediate human needs, and they often stumble in trying to explain the relevance and potential impact of their work without taking refuge in scientific jargon and baffling acronyms. As a result, these organizations struggle to attract popular attention and build an enthusiastic base of support as they seek funders and partners for their most ambitious projects.
At the same time, these institutions are fortified by distinctive and powerful capabilities. Unlike the federal government, whose funding cycles are influenced by the two-year and four-year power shifts of Congress and the White House, financially independent research organizations have the flexibility to support work that may require a time horizon of a decade or more. By providing scientists with the time necessary to pursue promising ideas, these organizations make sure that important new lines of research are not interrupted or even abandoned because of politically motivated funding shifts.
These institutions’ smaller size and restrained bureaucracy give them the agility to initiate or terminate research programs swiftly in response to new discoveries or more urgent questions. Scientists in these institutions also have the great luxury of devoting themselves to research without the responsibilities and time commitments of a formal teaching requirement. Although the independent research sector plays an important role in preparing the next generation of scientists, its educational mission is primarily devoted to hands-on training of graduate students and postdocs. Researchers are thus released from the duties of classroom lectures and grading, which, although often rewarding, require countless hours away from the laboratory bench.
More fundamentally, independent research institutions such as Salk and Carnegie have developed interdisciplinary and collaborative models that provide a research blueprint for investigating the complexity of an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. After achieving worldwide fame with his development of the first safe and effective polio vaccine, Jonas Salk in 1957 launched a new institute to create a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment where top researchers could follow their curiosity in exploring the basic principles of life. As his namesake institute’s first director, Salk underscored the importance and potential impacts of its open-ended research philosophy: “We cannot be certain what will happen here, but we can be certain it will contribute to the welfare and understanding of man.”
Similarly, the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory combines astronomy, astrophysics, chemistry, planetary physics and dynamics, atmospheric science, experimental and theoretical petrology, and mineral physics to answer fundamental questions about the nature of exoplanetary solar systems and the characteristics necessary for rocky planets to develop and sustain life. By bringing together a wide range of experts, equipping them with highly specialized instrumentation, and giving them the freedom to follow their curiosity across disciplinary boundaries, the project hopes to answer bold questions about the potential for life on other planets.
These institutions’ independent status allows them to remain true to their founders’ insistence on the central importance of fundamental research, driven by curiosity and undertaken without immediate need to establish its practical use or relevance. In an increasingly impatient and utilitarian world, independent research organizations bear a deep historical responsibility to keep on interrogating the fundamental mysteries of life and the universe.
In part, the independent research organizations’ ability to pursue basic research across disciplinary boundaries reflects narrower missions; unlike universities, they can focus financial and intellectual resources on targeted areas of inquiry, with the goal of delving into fundamental questions and potentially making profound, high-impact discoveries. When their researchers have satisfied their curiosity, or when a line of inquiry expands beyond their capabilities, they can then hand their discoveries off to colleagues in academia and the national laboratories for continuing study, collaboration, and innovation.
These institutions’ flexibility and independence also enable them to pursue research on topics that may be politically controversial. Consider the Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, launched in 2017 as President Donald Trump was announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Undeterred by political headwinds, this initiative’s geneticists, plant biologists, chemists, and computer scientists began working together to design carbon-capturing plants—literally from the ground up. Through selective breeding and genetic programming, the Salk Institute hopes to develop plants that can more efficiently sequester large amounts of excess carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots, with the goal of scaling use of these plants to sequester up to 20% of humanity’s current annual emissions by 2035. Without the institute’s financial independence, this crucial work might have been delayed for years by partisan political considerations—and frankly, it might have begun too late to have much impact on the quickening pace of global warming.
These institutions’ financial and political independence also enables them to serve as trusted conveners, building collaborations that combine the strengths of government and academia to tackle enormous tasks. In 2009, for example, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation seeded $50 million over 10 years to create the Deep Carbon Observatory, a diverse global community of more than 1,000 scientists who spent a decade investigating the quantities, movements, forms, and origins of carbon on Earth. This interdisciplinary effort brought together geologists, mineralogists, geophysicists, chemists, biochemists, microbiologists, and technologists from hundreds of institutions and nations, and ultimately drew hundreds of millions of dollars in international investment. Beyond the scientific impact of this unprecedented effort, the Deep Carbon Observatory demonstrated another unique strength of the nonprofit research sector by setting the explicit goal of strengthening the geophysical research community through the training of the next generation of scientists. Thanks to the Sloan Foundation’s ability to think in terms of decades rather than years, the ideas, techniques, and collaborations created by this project will continue to yield novel results and exciting insights from this talented, diverse group of young researchers for decades to come.
The independence, agility, and interdisciplinary approach of nonprofit scientific research institutions are likely to become even more crucial in the race to halt and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Perhaps just as importantly, these independent science institutions also bring a unique sense of optimism to their work that is inherent in their histories. Their founders endowed and established these institutions because they believed in a brighter future, and they further believed that scientific research was the surest path toward achieving that future. As Jonas Salk said in a 1985 television interview, “I already see enough evidence for this optimism.… In recent years, I find that perhaps what I’m seeking is a scientific basis for hope, and I think I’ve found it.”
That optimism in the face of massive challenges, pragmatically combined with thoughtful recruiting and robust fundraising, will position these exceptional institutions to continue making unexpected discoveries, building powerful, mission-driven teams, and bringing together far-reaching collaborations that exceed even the reach of the federal government. Despite the daunting scale of the problems the United States and the world face, private research institutions will endeavor to continue serving as scientific pioneers and trusted partners, guided by Jonas Salk’s personal motto: “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”