How One Foundation is Stepping Up for Public Research Funding

  photo: Katherine Welles/shutterstock

 photo: Katherine Welles/shutterstock

Most people you talk to in science philanthropy will tell you how important public funding for science research is, and they mean it, well aware that their funding is just a small piece of the overall pie. 

But it’s less common for science research funders to be outright advocates for government investment in science. There are valid reasons for the hesitance to take up that fight—there are some nuanced rules (although less restrictive than you might think) about private foundations and advocacy, and both philanthropists and those in the scientific community tend to shy away from anything that could be perceived as political. 

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But federal support for research has been lagging for years, now, and the Trump administration, although weak in the follow-through department, has threatened severe cuts to science budgets. In the past year, one foundation has stepped up its advocacy for biomedical research funding—the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. 

Probably best known for its annual Lasker Awards, along with other science education and research funding, the foundation also has deep roots in advocacy for biomedical research funding. As far back as the 1940s, founder Mary Lasker was a fiery advocate for investment in medical research. 

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While advocacy is part of the foundation’s mission, it’s been especially active on that front this year, with new efforts to spread Mary Lasker’s refrain: "If you think research is expensive, try disease!" 

Back in April, against the backdrop of threatened budget cuts, the Lasker Foundation assembled 123 of its laureates to sign on to a statement that they are “united in support of sustained, robust funding for biomedical research to improve lives and build a healthier world,” which appeared in a full-page New York Times ad. Not long after, the foundation added a new “Advocacy” tab to its website that states, “despite powerful scientific advances which have led to new therapies and technologies to ease human suffering, biomedical research is once again in need of our support.”

Earlier this month, the foundation rallied a similar statement, this time with 88 patient advocacy organizations as signatories, and taking out a full page in USA Today. The foundation also helped organize an online campaign called #ResearchSavedMe, which invited people to share short videos or photos with stories of how research has benefited their lives. Foundation President Claire Pomeroy joined in with her own story of surviving kidney cancer. 

Foundations that back research tend to stay in their lane of, well, backing research, reluctant to enter the fray of federal budget fights. But given the much higher spending capacity of the federal government, you can see how a foundation might have a considerably bigger impact on the scientific enterprise by more actively advocating for public research funding. The Lasker Foundation seems to think so, and maybe others will too.

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