Is Science Philanthropy Too Cautious?
A DISCUSSION OFWhy Philanthropy Is America’s Unique Research Advantage
It was a delight to see Robert W. Conn’s coherent, synthetic history of the role of philanthropy in support of US science and technology, presented in “Why Philanthropy Is America’s Unique Research Advantage” (Issues, August 11, 2021). The field I was trained in, molecular biology, originated in large part through the vision of Warren Weaver at the Rockefeller Foundation, and early practitioners were supported by the Carnegie Corporation. Now philanthropies in biomedical research are hugely important complements to the National Institutes of Health and other government funders.
I have been puzzled for over two decades by a simple observation, and I would welcome Conn’s thoughts. Why has it taken so long, and relied entirely on initiative within government, to develop a DARPA-like component in biomedical research, when this was an obvious niche to fill? Conn describes how major R&D initiatives draw on a very broad array of investigator-initiated research projects—the vaunted R01 NIH grant and its equivalents. But now the convergence of science and information technology has naturally led to larger teams that require management, direction, and vision: examples being CERN, the Human Genome Project, and the BRAIN Initiative. And now there is serious talk of cloning and adapting the DARPA framework to address problem-oriented research—that is, to systematically pursue grand challenges that will necessarily entail many teams pulling in harness.
Yet most philanthropies have mainly cherry-picked successful science from the ranks of stars in the NIH- and National Science Foundation-funded constellations. It is an effective, successful, but very conservative strategy. It is powerful and successful, for sure—witness the amazing contributions of Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators or the outsize influence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in global health. But serious efforts to pool resources toward social goals that won’t be achieved otherwise seem outside the box. Witness the amazing story of developing vaccines but failing to distribute them equitably or even effectively because the incentives to the companies that control the products do not align with public health goals.
It seems there must be some incentives within philanthropy that thwart thinking at scale or hinder cooperation among philanthropies, or that cleave to existing frameworks of intellectual property and control that nonprofit funding might be able to work around. Could the Science Philanthropy Alliance that Conn cites do better? What would that look like?
Professor, Arizona State University