Here's One Foundation That's Heeding the Call for More Basic Science Funding

Philanthropists (and the foundations they establish) have an understandable bias toward results-oriented giving: People who achieve great success by making things happen in the real world often want their philanthropy to be similarly productive.

In areas like health and medicine, this outlook influences a lot of giving toward the clinical and translational research into developing and testing new cures and therapies. The potential downside: less money for the kind of skunkworks tinkering and creative serendipity of basic science that is ultimately the source of those needed cures and therapies.

Meanwhile, federal funding for basic science has been on the decline, and there's a growing sense of urgency among some philanthropists that more private donors need to step forward, here. Recently, a group of top science fundersincluding the Simons, Sloan, Moore, and Kavli foundationscreated the Science Philanthropy Alliance with the goal to "substantially increase philanthropic funding for fundamental research and create a community of funders for discovery-driven scientific inquiry."

One funder that's not yet part of that alliance, but which looks to be heading that way, is the Pershing Square Foundation. Backed by the hedge fund fortune of Bill Ackman, PSF wants to make sure the microscopes stay on in the labs where the messy and unpredictable business of basic science takes place. And they developed a unique financial model for the job. PSF has awarded a $10 million endowment to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a Long Island, New York, research institution that focuses on life sciences.

PSF will actually retain management of the endowment for the next 25 years, giving 5 percent of the interest earned annually to CSHL for innovative research and education in biology and genetics. In 2040, it will release the entire principal amount to CSHL, which should be a tidy sum, given Ackman's investing track record. It's the first time PSH has created an endowment, rather than direct grants. And this kind of endowment, which pays out at the end, is quite different from the more typical endowment funds created by donors, typically at universities. 

"The structure of the endowment is designed to support the most innovative work," said Olivia Tournay Flatto, Ph.D., executive director of the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance. "It's an interesting and exciting way to use private philanthropy to fund innovation right when it's happening, so the researchers don't have to wait for grants to come through."

Going forward, PSF and CSHL will collaborate to determine which studies and researchers will be supported with the endowment funds, said Flatto.

CSHL, founded in 1890 to teach high school and college students marine biology, has since become a research institution with a globally recognized reputation for conducting basic science. It currently funds more than 600 scientists and technicians focusing on cancer, neuroscience, quantitative biology, plant biology, bioinformatics and genomics. It also runs a Ph.D. program, a think tank, conferences, and a scientific press.

“This important gift perfectly addresses the need for flexibility in funding contemporary science,” said CSHL President and CEO Bruce Stillman, Ph.D. “With unrestricted endowment, we can be nimble in our decisions to support pioneering projects and game-changing discoveries to improve human health. We are grateful to have Bill and Karen Ackman and The Pershing Square Foundation as our partners in advancing basic science.”

Of course, it's hardly accurate to say PSF is not results-oriented—it supports a range of social as well as scientific programs, and even describes its approach as "businesslike and results-oriented." Its first big foray in research was focused on cancer, so this funder is hardly immune to the desire for breakthroughs that can lead to tangible medical gains sooner rather than later. But this latest funding advances an equally important long view of progress, and gives scientists the room they need to make the discoveries that can change everything.

Related: Inside the Pershing Square Foundation: A “Catalytic” Funder on the Fast Track