Help Wanted: A Funders Alliance Rallies Newcomers to Science Philanthropy

When public science funding declined in 2012, major foundations formed the Science Philanthropy Alliance to step up their game. President Marc Kastner tells us what they’ve learned since about private funding’s role in basic research.  

Kastner was 27 and just embarking on a career in condensed matter physics when he landed his first NSF grant in the early 1970s. He kept that federal funding almost continuously through his 40-plus years as a highly esteemed MIT professor and eventually dean of science, during a heyday of increases in government research funding.

“I lived in a charmed era, and I have a feeling that the government is just not going to get back to funding basic science, the way it should be funding it, for a long time,” says Kastner, who now helms the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a funder affinity group that aims to inspire and advise private support for basic research. He sees a harder road for young investigators kicking off their careers these days.

“It’s just a critical time for philanthropists to step in and fund some of the best research, and especially some of the best young investigators, so we don’t lose them. That’s a big part of the motivation for me.”

It was also the motivation for some of the largest science foundations in the world—Kavli, Moore, Simons, Sloan, HHMI, and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement—when they formed the Alliance back in 2012. Deep spending cuts known as sequestration following a fierce budget standoff led by congressional Republicans, prompted the funders to team up in hopes of bolstering private philanthropy. Research budgets have experienced some relief since, but the cuts sent a lasting chill through the community.  

We’ve also seen philanthropy in the U.S. surge, with research funding becoming a massive priority for donors like James Simons, Gordon and Betty Moore, Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Yuri Milner, and many more. 

“We have our hands full,” Kastner says. The Alliance’s membership has nearly doubled in the past year, and recently picked up the massive, U.K.-based funder Wellcome.

Since its founding, the Science Philanthropy Alliance has developed a strategy of advising new philanthropists interested in funding basic science, helped them figure out best practices and seek advice from others, and ultimately have a successful experience that will prompt them to keep the tap flowing. 

Because it turns out that giving effectively to science research is pretty daunting. The proliferation of fields is mind-boggling—from the origins of the universe to the architecture of the brain—and the approaches to funding are also all over the place.

We cover this stuff at length, and it raises a bunch of questions about what role private money is playing in modern research, how it can best serve scientists, and where things are headed. So we were happy to spend some time talking with Kastner to get his perspective on the current state of science philanthropy.

The Rise of the Billionaire Science Donor

Whenever we write broadly about science philanthropy, two sorts of take-home messages arise, and Kastner backs them up. First, private funding for basic research is still not near what the federal government provides, even after steadily shrinking budgets. Second, while that may be the case, the role for private philanthropy in advancing basic science has grown more significant—and needs to increase. 

On the first point, it's often noted that billionaires are privatizing American science, but at least for now, that’s an overstatement. It's true that large-scale government funding for science is a relatively new development, sparked by World War II and the Cold War, and later public health concerns that boosted NIH spending in the 1990s. So it’s fair to speculate on what the future holds. 

But the days of major government investment in science are far from over. Public funding of research to academic institutions is around $40 billion a year. While the mission of the alliance is to urge more private philanthropy, it’s not seeking to swap government agencies with deep-pocketed billionaires, nor could it. 

“The federal government should be supporting basic science—there’s no question about that,” Kastner says. “Most economists will tell you that research and development investment is what grows the GDP, and if we want the economy to grow, we should be spending more.”

But a few factors are leading to a bigger role for science philanthropy in research these days. Aside from spending cuts themselves, political pressure also tends to demand concrete results, which favors more conservative research and applied science, Kastner points out.

The alliance emphasizes basic or fundamental science, research that seeks purely to improve understanding rather than applications. Such work can have profound impacts, and lead to world-changing applications (GPS, CRISPR, lasers, etc.), but outcomes may take longer and are hard to predict.

“It’s extremely important for progress in all areas of life that we keep doing basic research,” Kastner says. “Government has a harder and harder time doing that when budgets are constrained, because government agencies have to justify their spending to Congress, and Congress wants to know what the voter is going to get out of it.”

We’re simultaneously seeing rising consolidation of wealth and private philanthropy overall in the United States, along with massive fundraising campaigns by universities across the country to augment their own budgets.

It is, however, hard to tell just how big a role private funds are currently playing, since it’s not centrally tracked like government spending. In an attempt to establish baseline numbers, the alliance recently conducted a survey of 2015 private giving to basic research. Respondents reported $1.2 billion in science spending and $2.2 billion across disciplines—and that’s a very low estimate, with some major players uncounted. An unrelated 2013 analysis put private funding of science, engineering and medicine at over $4 billion.

And it certainly seems to be on the rise, if only based on the occasional nine-figure research commitments emerging lately. Kastner said the Science Philanthropy Alliance is regularly approached by new philanthropists looking to get involved in funding research—everyone from hedge fund managers to tech billionaires. “It’s all over the place.”

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Many have interest in contributing to work that may one day cure disease—the alliance survey found that life sciences are currently heavily favored by donors including Paul Allen and Sean Parker. Others have backgrounds in basic science and are naturally drawn to supporting it (Yuri Milner, Jim Simons). And there’s no shortage of tech billionaires with unending faith in the power of discovery (Gordon Moore, Bill Gates). 

Agencies like the NSF, the NIH, and the DOE are still the biggest game in town for basic research, but new players looking to fund science are now popping up to fill gaps and boost fledgling fields, and the Alliance hopes to see more of it.

“Any diversification in the source of research funds is a good thing,” Kastner says.

Science Philanthropy at its Best

There are many directions a private donor can go, and the Alliance works to help those interested in getting it right. Some smaller donors may take the shortest path and cut a big check to their institutions of choice, a totally legit approach, Kastner says. Others like HHMI take a people-based approach, backing hundreds of investigators directly on the foundation’s payroll. And we’re seeing entire independent institutes springing out of philanthropy, such as Broad and Allen.

In fact, one of the biggest strengths of private science funding is that philanthropists can distribute funds however they want, Kastner says. 

“The system that we have in the federal government is really an excellent one to make sure that the money is not wasted—lots of checks and balances, and you have committees that make decisions, and lots of referees, and it has a tendency to make things more conservative,” he says. “Whereas philanthropists generally are really interested in trying things that are very bold and high-risk, and they don’t care if they fail sometimes.”

As a result, the cases where he sees philanthropy really shine are when a private funder can kickstart research in less established fields, or that might struggle to clear public funding hurdles. When it works, philanthropy can cultivate an entirely new or neglected field of research, often prompting government agencies to hop on board.

“The best approach is for philanthropists to do things that are bold and unusual and get things started. And then the government, if it sees the value, can come in and boost the effort dramatically.”

Kastner cites the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which languished before Bill Gates and Charles Simonyi gave it a boost, nudging government support. The Moore Foundation’s work in earthquake early warning systems, and in marine microbiology are similar examples of a private backer transforming a field. The younger and smaller Heising-Simons Foundation is aiming to do something similar in the hunt for axion dark matter. 

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In fact, while one concern about private philanthropy is that donors may be overly drawn to funding trendy subjects, Kastner often sees the opposite; they tend to go where others aren’t. “Generally, philanthropists want to fill gaps.”

Another strength is that, while overall funds are smaller, individual grants from private donors can also be much longer, larger, and more flexible than government grants. The example Kastner is particularly fond of is HHMI, which backs investigators for five-year stints at a time, with very few strings attached. The Simons Foundation also offers some extended grants to researchers. 

Related: InsidetheSimonsFoundation: Big Philanthropy on the Frontiers of Science

Of course, that power to deliver bursts of funding according to their whims also presents challenges. Critics have raised concerns that philanthropists can have too much control, holding influence over researchers, or diverting funds in a less measured or democratic manner.

It’s also generally less approachable for researchers. Foundations often hand pick what they fund, soliciting proposals or even collaboratively crafting programs with selected researchers. While some foundations have clear-cut RFPs or nomination rules, “there is, in general, no straightforward way for an investigator to get private funds,” Kastner says. 

But he sees such independence and control over what gets funded as a strength, and points out that the smaller scale of private funding generally means a misstep won’t distort the research landscape. 

One tactic they strongly advise to help science philanthropists dodge such pitfalls is to establish an effective science advisory board. Relying on a respected body of scientists without conflicts of interest can create a process that rivals or exceeds government review procedures, he says.

“Philanthropists that we talk to understand that it’s really important, if they’re going to fund the best science, they get really good advice about it, that reflects the view of the scientific community."

Looking Forward

While Kastner is quick to hold up field leaders like HHMI and Simons, he also points out plenty of surprises unfolding in science philanthropy. 

For one, there’s the fact that relatively young people who have come into wealth are jumping right in, contrary to the septuagenarians of philanthropy past. And even though assembling a crackerjack staff can certainly form a great grantmaking program, they’re also seeing new philanthropists finding success with a much leaner approach. 

One wildcard he’s particularly interested in is Yuri Milner. Kastner’s partial to Milner as a fellow physicist, but he’s eager to see what unfolds from the “very unusual things” he is fronting—his latest program seeks to engineer tiny spacecraft that can travel to Alpha Centauri, for example.

“[Milner is] a really good example of somebody doing things that the federal government just wouldn’t do.”

It’s hard to know what the next Milner or Gordon Moore or Jim Simons will fund, but they most certainly will keep emerging, and the Science Philanthropy Alliance team hopes to help them be as effective as possible. And that might just mean sparking the career of the the next Marc Kastner. 

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