Is Philanthropy Helping to Usher in an Age of Enlightenment for Psychiatric Research?

With their recent $25 million gift to University of California San Francisco, Bay Area philanthropists Bill and Susan Oberndorf have become the latest private funders to make a major gift to drive new research in psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

We've reported before about the role of philanthropy in neuroscience and psychiatric researchareas that have traditionally lagged in federal support. In 2014, we covered Ted Stanley’s $650 million commitment to the Broad Institute, writing, "researchers hope [the gift] can kickstart a new golden age of research into psychiatric illness." And late last year, I wrote about a $20 million research gift by Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund's that—like the Oerndorfs' gift—also went to  UCSF.

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Recently, I looked at the Leon Levy Foundation, which for the last decade, has provided neuroscience fellowships to New York-area research institutions, largely to keep top research talent from defecting to other, better-funded fields.

UCSF says the Oberndorf Foundation's unrestricted commitment plays a similar role, enabling the university to recruit and retain the most promising early-career scientists working on basic research in psychiatry.

The $25 million gift follows a previous $5 million gift from the Oberndorfs to create a distinguished professorship in psychiatry. UCSF says that support enabled them to recruit a world-renowned child psychiatrist who is an expert on the genomics of autism and Tourette syndrome. Just as important, UCSF says, the Oberndorf's support "has galvanized many other philanthropic investments in UCSF neuroscience."

Grants and programs like these reflect development in the science itself: Knowledge and study of neuroscience and the biological components of mental illness have accelerated in recent years. In other words, the field of neuroscience is catching up with other areas of medical research.

That translates into increased hope for progress against very difficult—and costly—disorders. Over the next decade, says UCSF, basic science into the brain promises to revolutionize our understanding of the most serious psychiatric illnesses, including autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, depression and anxiety.

These are not rare conditions: Twenty percent of the population will suffer some kind of psychiatric or behavioral problem. For example, our aging population faces substantial challenges from the various forms of dementia, while a World Bank study forecasts that by 2030, depression will become society's most expensive health care issue.

The Oberndorfs—whose Bay Area giving has also gone to education, the environment, arts and culture, and human services—have been strong supporters of UCSF for more than two decades. Bill Oberndorf volunteers as chair of the UCSF Board of Overseers, and the couple has invested in several important projects at the school, including UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, the Sandler Neurosciences Center, and the UCSF Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building.

The newest NIH budget included a long-needed boost in funding for neuroscience and psychiatry research, but levels are still not commensurate with the impact of psychiatric and behavioral disorders on people and the healthcare system. Hopefully, philanthropy will continue to grow its commitment to these research areas, but federal public funding has to expand in coming years, or the human and financial cost to society will be far higher.