Pay Attention to This International Billionaire's Growing Philanthropy, Especially for Science

London-based billionaire Len Blavatnik has been giving away quite a bit of money in recent years. Armed with a degree from Moscow State University and two degrees from Ivy League institutions, Blavatnik made sharp investments in post-Soviet aluminum and energy companies and earned a fortune. He's the founder and chairman of Access Industries, and Forbes currently pegs the 59 year old's net worth at $15.7 billion. 

Blavatnik's wealth is a big deal, and why we've kept a close eye on the international billionaire and his growing giving. I recently wrote about the Blavatnik Family Foundation's leading gift of $25 million to Carnegie Hall, where Blavatnik serves as a trustee. He and his wife Emily also support the arts and other causes through a charitable vehicle called the Provident Foundation.

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From what we can track, though, Blavatnik's largest sums in recent years have gone toward institutions of higher learning. In 2010, Blavatnik committed £75 million to establish the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. In 2013, he gave gifts of $50 million and $10 million to Harvard and Yale respectively. Two years ago, meanwhile, Blavatnik gave $20 million gift to Tel Aviv University (TAU).

Blavatnik has shown a particular interest in bankrolling scientific research at colleges and universities. Back in 2007, the Blavatnik Family Foundation established the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, awarded through the New York Academy of Sciences, to recognize innovative accomplishments that have an impact on life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and engineering. These awards have supported researchers at institutions like UC Berkeley, Yale, Harvard and MIT. 

Away from these awards, Blavatnik's big gift to Tel Aviv University established the Blavatnik Initiative, a multi-year program committed to the advancement of interdisciplinary scientific research, discovery, and development. His gift to Harvard, meanwhile, bankrolled an initiative aimed at accelerating biomedical research. While Blavatnik studied at Moscow State University, Columbia and Harvard, his higher education philanthropy has not exclusively focused on his alma maters. 

The most recent news is that the billionaire is once again supporting Yale University. The Blavatnik Family Foundation has given $10 million to Yale to support the Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale, designed to "bridge the gap between life sciences research and business and to accelerate the commercialization of groundbreaking, investigator-initiated discoveries." The funds will also establish the the Blavatnik Fellows Program, which aims to foster scientific entrepreneurship.

It's worth mentioning that Blavatnik's past $10 million in 2013 supported Yale immunobiologists Ruslan Medzhitov and Richard Flavell and their pioneering studies on inflammation and chronic disease. Medzhitov holds a PhD from Moscow State University, where Blavatnik also graduated. What's more, in 2007, Medzhitov was a Blavatnik regional award winner for his contributions to immunology. 

On some level, then, Blavatnik has been long aware and impressed with the scientific research being done at Yale. And while critics of big gifts to wealthy universities, like Malcolm Gladwell, have lately been getting more vociferous, often making great points about inequity in higher education, it's important  to analyze such gifts individually. Some of the biggest donations to elite universities go to fund the kind of scientific research that most people agree we need more of—but which government agencies are less able to support amid budget cutbacks.

Top schools like Yale and Harvard are routinely depicted as bastions of privilege, and there's plenty of truth to that. But they are also key incubators of ideas and discoveries in science, medicine and other fields, and eight- or nine-figure gifts to such institutions often make a lot of sense, just like it makes sense for government research agencies to funnel billions in taxpayer dollars to these places. As Blavatnik put it, “Yale exemplifies the remarkable pace of growth and discovery in the life sciences... the Blavatnik Innovation Fund will help Yale attract entrepreneurial partners to quicken the discovery-to-market pipeline and to nurture future leaders in scientific entrepreneurism." 

The bigger picture, here, is that like it or not, donors such as Len Blavatnik are becoming ever more important to the future of science, especially within higher education. 

Related: Should We Worry That More Big Gifts Are Flowing to Top Universities? Yes and No