Philanthropy and Science Research: Here's Some New Important Data on Trends and Patterns

While a strength of philanthropy is its diversity of sources and strategies, that scattered nature always makes it hard to pin down exactly what’s going on out there. 

A case in point is private support for science research.  

We can tell anecdotally that there’s a lot of such funding happening, as we see the huge figures appearing in headlines all the time. But it can be difficult to gauge giving trends or to tell how philanthropy compares and where it fits in with government funding in order to gain a more coherent picture of the nation’s research priorities and needs. 

The Science Philanthropy Alliance, a relatively young affinity group working to increase philanthropic support for basic scientific research, has made it a priority to track down some of these baseline numbers. It's been surveying research institutions for two years to piece together an overall annual figure, but also determine where funds are going and for what kind of work. 


The alliance’s 2015 survey of private funding for basic science research totaled $1.2 billion, nothing to scoff at, but lowball considering only 42 percent of academic research institutions surveyed responded. The latest survey offers a similarly partial figure, but the group is starting to gain a clearer picture of what kind of funds are moving. The alliance says that in 2016, survey respondents reported $2.3 billion in basic science research funding, including life sciences, physical sciences and mathematics. 

The reason for the big jump from the previous year has a lot to do with a larger set of responding institutions—42 versus last year’s 27, including the extension of the survey to independent research institutes for the first time. That’s 53 percent of universities that were invited to participate and 44 percent of invited research institutes. 

But even looking only at the groups that responded in both 2015 and 2016, the amount of giving also increased, from $1.2 billion to $1.56 billion, or 31 percent. 

The folks at the alliance say most of the larger institutions are now participating, and they hope more will be on board in the future. Part of the challenge is that they don’t always have reporting or tracking mechanisms in place to participate, or to isolate funding by academic category or by basic science, which the Alliance focuses on.

As in the first year’s study, some interesting and/or troubling trends showed up in the alliance’s 2016 numbers

  • Private funding for science research is a small piece of the pie when it comes to overall private giving to higher education, comparing the $2.3 billion number to $41 billion overall reported in 2016. 
  • Life sciences overwhelmingly dominated science research philanthropy, making up 84 percent of reported giving, and totaling $1.9 billion. Thirteen percent of giving went to physical sciences, and only 3 percent went to mathematics.
  • Giving is still top-heavy, with 27 percent of the reported total going to just three institutions.

As we always point out, private giving is still dwarfed by federal agency spending on research in the United States. But things are also very much in flux, with philanthropy growing and federal spending lagging in recent years. Within the category breakdowns in particular, you can see how having a better grasp of these numbers could go a long way to understanding both shortfalls and openings as private funding continues to have an important presence.