A New Funding Stream for Young Researchers Thinking Outside the Box

For researchers early in their careers, landing funding can mean getting a government agency or a private source to take a chance on you. After all, your line of research may be less established, and you don’t have a mile-long CV behind you. 

It’s also an important stage, though, in which creative ideas are flowing and bright minds are building the foundations of their careers, if they can stick with it. 

Especially as government funding levels for basic science have failed to keep up, and budget hawks regularly challenge science funding, there’s a concern that agencies are taking fewer chances on young investigators.


That’s led a number of philanthropies like the Beckman Foundation and Simons Foundation to prioritize giving to researchers early in their careers. Private philanthropy can never replace government funding, but this is one shortfall it might help meet, the idea goes.

The latest such donor making a big gift to early investigators is William K. Bowes, Jr., aka Bill Bowes, who seems more than comfortable taking a chance on young talent when he sees it.

He ought to be, considering Bowes made his own career as a venture capitalist, a founding shareholder in pharmaceutical giant Amgen and founder of U.S. Venture Partners. Backing rising stars in industry is how he made his wealth. 

We haven’t written a ton about Bowes, mainly because he’s pretty low key about his giving. He has a foundation that doesn’t show much of its hand and operates with a small staff. His philanthropic interests range from higher education to arts and cultural institutions. 


But he really seems to be drawn to innovative work not many steps removed from his investment interests—biomedical science. Past giving has notably included areas like stem cell research (for which he’s backed multiple schools) and neuroscience. And although Bowes attended Stanford and Harvard, he is a major contributor to the University of California, San Francisco, which landed this latest gift for young investigators. 

With a $50 million pledge, the school will launch the Bowes Biomedical Investigator Program, which brings his total giving to the school to almost $100 million. The program will provide substantial funding—a five-year stream of $250,000 per year, per investigator, to early and mid-career faculty. 

As the folks at UCSF tell it, Bowes is mainly moved to support specific researchers rather than fields of work, which could explain why the investigator program somewhat resembles HHMI’s model of banking on researchers, rather than a more government-like approach of distinct project grants. 

Another key component of this program, and another thing philanthropists are drawn to, is that it will lean toward researchers who don’t slot into narrow disciplinary boundaries. 

For a number of reasons, including the development of powerful new tools and techniques, some of the most exciting research happening right now is that which straddles or marries multiple disciplines. But researchers attest, and with some evidence backing it, that it’s harder to land funding when you don’t slot into a particular easily identifiable category. 

In that sense, the Bowes program is doubling up on the risk factor, and UCSF is thrilled. This university, by the way, has become a major magnet for big research gifts in recent years—pulling in giant donations from Chuck Feeney and Sandy Weill with the past two years. In 2015, it ranked number four on the list of schools that raised the most money, with $608 million in gifts.