Volcanoes Are Among the Niches This Former Investor Likes to Fund

Gary Brinson is considered a living legend among investors, and in his retirement, he mostly gives to education and Chicago institutions. But he has a soft spot for science, backing some pretty specific areas of research. 

The Brinson Foundation began after Chicago investor Brinson retired in 2000, just before the dotcom bubble burst. He frankly attributes his entry to the world of philanthropy solely to the fact that he thinks leaving excessive inheritances hurts heirs’ initiative and self-esteem. So while he’s giving them a chunk, the rest will go to the foundation. 

Related: The Brinson Foundation: Grants for Science Research

The foundation’s ideology is pretty strongly on the Ayn Rand/Libertarian/Social Darwinism side, so most of the giving is somehow related to personal accountability and pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps, etc. But about 16 percent of giving has gone to science research, totaling around $600,000 in most years.

Brinson doesn’t have a background in science, but in one annual report he writes, “I have come to appreciate the multitude of contributions to mankind that have flowed from the rigors of intellectual thinking and innovation in the areas where we are active.” 

Those specific areas are quite interesting. See, Brinson likes giving to be narrowly prescribed, albeit evolving. Here are a few things the funder is particularly drawn to: 

1. Volcanoes. Under the Geophysics subprogram, Brinson has funded multiple projects studying volcanic activity and seismology, including one recent grant to the Carnegie Institution for Science for its work on Icelandic volcanoes. (Timely, since, as of writing, one of those volcanoes is gonna blow any day now.)

2. Stargazing. There’s one program in Cosmology and another in Astrophysics. The University of Arizona has received multiple grants for its Spacewatch program, studying small objects in the solar system. While not under this program, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago is also a regular grantee.

3. Evolutionary Developmental Biology. Really screwed up the flow of my pithy list here, but this program funds interdisciplinary work on the evolution of biodiversity, including paleontology, genetics and molecular evolution. I’d love to know more about the specific interests behind this one, but the only grantee in recent years seems to be to the University of Chicago for work in the same field. 

Related: The Brinson Foundation: Chicago Grants

Finally, there is a Medical Research priority that does not accept inquiries (other science programs accept them year round, and nationally), but gives for work on chronic diseases or treatable conditions that “negatively impact the productivity” of a large segment of the population.

For more insight into Brinson’s giving, see the profiles linked above, plus a related post here.