Philanthropists Are Getting Behind a New Push for Government Science Funding

 photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

Americans love science. But when it comes to paying for it, only one in four believes government’s role in funding research is irreplaceable, according to a study by ScienceCounts, a nonprofit out to build support for science funding.

That’s a troubling figure, given both the far-reaching benefits of science funding, and the fact that the federal government pays for around half of the nation's basic research, its single biggest funder. 

It should also be troubling to those in science philanthropy. Leaders in the sector often point out how indispensable the government’s role is to science, and that they can't come close to replacing it, or even intend to. But this suggests a lot of people don't realize how much scientific research relies on federal funding.

In an effort to counter this problem, a handful of private funders have joined several professional societies and a couple of corporate partners in support of ScienceCounts, an emerging effort to protect government funding of science by bolstering public support. 

“We need to get out there and help Americans understand that they have a role to play, and the government has a very important role to play, in the scientific enterprise, and that needs to be, not just protected, but that needs to be embraced,” says Executive Director Christopher Volpe.

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The nonprofit was set in motion back in 2012 at a meeting initiated by the American Physical Society, where science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Alan Alda met with science advocates and professional society leaders. They posed the question, “Is America falling out of love with science?” and shared concerns that research funding was losing some of its strongest champions in government, Volpe says. 

Since around World War II, the U.S. government has been the biggest driver of science research funding in the country, but federal investment in science has lost some of its once-ironclad political support, flattening out over the past decade or so.

That first meeting evolved into ScienceCounts, which formed in late 2014 with a mission to reenergize public enthusiasm for science in order to ensure federal backing. ScienceCounts isn't a lobbying group, but it hopes to activate a broader swath of the public in support of science, which in theory will translate to stronger government funding. 

The organization’s first initiative was a 2015 benchmark study, which yielded the stat that three out of four people believe sources like the private sector and philanthropy could replace shortfalls in government science funding.

“That’s the big wake-up call for all of us,” Volpe says. 

The group has been gearing up for its next phase of outreach, for which it has raised a little over $1 million so far, Volpe says. Philanthropic backing is coming from HHMI and the Simons, Packard, Moore, Lyda Hill, Rita Allen and Kavli foundations. Corporate funders include Elsevier and Johnson & Johnson. 

You might wonder why this is something science philanthropy would concern itself with. Its job, after all, is to pay for researchers to do research, and philanthropy is a relatively small part of the overall funding picture. 

But science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and donors and foundation leaders are well aware that they’re just one component that relies on a larger funding ecosystem. In fact, many in philanthropy are deeply concerned about the state of government funding for science, and are likely mortified to think that philanthropy could be undermining it. 

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But there’s a real concern that the eye-popping accounts of $100 million here or a billionaire entrepreneur there are sending a message that industry and private wealth are picking up the slack. It's something ScienceCounts saw in its surveys and focus groups.

“We call it the Tony Stark phenomenon here,” Volpe says. “We are reinforcing this belief that we’re in this golden age of Tony Starks. We have to be mindful of that, and that’s one of the challenges in shaping public perception.”

That doesn’t mean private wealth should stop backing research, or they should act more secretively, he says, but it’s part of a misconception that needs to be countered about who pays for science. For Volpe, that’s essentially a marketing problem. 

And it’s not as simple as just sharing some budget numbers and letting people do the math. The group has been using data from its benchmark study to craft outreach, recently launching a messaging test campaign in five markets around the country. 

Among the interesting findings guiding its work is the fact that for most Americans, the abstract concept of science basically translates to hope—it’s a source of optimism and a path to a better tomorrow. But depending on things like education level, location or political ideology, that could mean hope for many different things, like environment and energy research, national security or space travel. 

At least part of the solution ScienceCounts is pursuing is to tap into that sense of hope, Volpe says, and meet people where they’re at instead of expecting facts and figures to do the heavy lifting. 

Winning over hearts and minds may not be something that scientists—or science philanthropists, for that matter—are all that comfortable doing. But it may just be necessary if they want to secure a better tomorrow for research funding.