Investing in Young Scientific Talent: How (and Why) One Research Funder Does It

Few foundations provide most of their annual giving to individuals. The bias of most funders in favor of organizational grantees reflects a simple assumption. Organizations involve more people, and from a strategic standpoint, seem to offer more influence and credibility. And organizations, arguably, are more likely to have the capacity to disseminate and publicize the results that derive from their project grants.

But when it comes to scientific innovation, individuals, not organizations, are paramount, according to the Princeton, New Jersey-based Rita Allen Foundation. The 40-year old philanthropy, which gave away $6 million in a recent year, still focuses much of its giving on young scientists of exceptional talent and promise in the field of biomedical research—investigators looking for breakthroughs to the world’s most persistent health challenges, from finding a cure for cancer to improving drug treatments for schizophrenia and Parkinson’s.

It's easy to overlook Rita Allen, given the large footprints of top research funders like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Simons Foundation. But it's among a number of smaller funders that play a critical role in supporting young investigators at a time when government research dollars are in decline. 

The foundation just announced its latest annual awards. The seven scientists selected for this year's cohort will each receive an annual grant of up to $110,000 for a maximum of five years to conduct innovative research on the role of microbes in intestinal health, the prevention of chronic pain, and the complex signals that shape development and disorders in the brain. Five of the scholars were nominated by research institutions in the United States and two were selected in partnership with the American Pain Society.

"We are supporting these exceptional young scientists with resources for pioneering projects that will extend the boundaries of knowledge and open new possibilities for improving health," said Rita Allen Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Good Christopherson, in announcing the grants. "Their work will provide insights into many of the body's hidden, yet vital, processes—informing strategies to prevent and treat diseases of the brain, nervous system, and digestive system."

How successful are these grants in advancing the field of medicine? Christopherson said the foundation focuses on basic scientific research, the early stages of open-ended inquiry deemed promising but without a clear roadmap. After consulting with hundreds of well-established scientists over the years, the foundation has learned how challenging the early stages of a scientific career can be—and how many promising avenues of research are never explored, largely because the scientists can’t yet demonstrate a compelling application and are simply too busy writing grant proposals to secure funding for more well-established research agendas. Rita Allen grants are intended to free up young scientists at the earliest stages of their careers to take the risk of traveling down unknown paths of inquiry with educated hunches, without roadmaps to where their inquiry might eventually lead.

Christopherson often cites the case of Robert Weinerg, one of Rita Allen’s very first scholars, who became the first scientist to identify a tumor-causing human gene—using a method that occurred to him as a young researcher while trudging through a Boston blizzard. In the documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, Dr. Weinberg observed, “What drives one is one's ongoing curiosity, and the optimism that if you push hard enough, and you look under enough stones, you're going to turn up some really interesting things.”

Interestingly, Rita Allen’s own unbridled curiosity has led it to partner with organizations in disparate fields—simply because they needed innovation. For example, in 2015, Rita Allen partnered with the Pew Charitable Trusts to find a solution to the lack of reliable, easily accessible election information for voters. The partnership developed the Voting Information Project (VIP), which produced a powerful online tool that enables anyone in the United States to find his or her correct polling place, identify the key candidates and ballot issues involved, and complete the voting process without error. 

To outsiders, the connection between supporting scientists and helping voters might not seem so obvious, but in fact, Rita Allen sees the connection as intrinsic. “A greater understanding of science, and a greater engagement of scientists in civic issues, will be necessary if we are to effectively meet the complex challenges that face our society—whether caring for an aging population, using technology to strengthen democratic decision making, or effectively responding to natural and man-made disasters,” Christopherson has said. “Science has always been a backbone of democracy, yet as scientific knowledge and communications technology have made amazing advances in the past decades, we haven’t seen an equivalent growth in public understanding of science.”

In fact, Rita’s Allen’s single VIP project seems to have spurred the foundation in much the same way its biomedical grants do: by providing a stimulus to an ever-widening field of inquiry.  The foundation is planning pilot investments for new research on the roots of public distrust of science as well as program support to WGBH in Boston and the nonprofit Health Research Alliance to broaden the audience for science communications.  It has also begun supporting media experiments at the local and national levels—including Hearken, the Knight News Challenge on voter information, and the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education.

RelatedAlternate Realities: This Funder Wants to Close the Gap Between Scientists and the Public

To Christopherson, the logic of the foundation’s most recent evolution, which may appear winding to outsiders, is actually quite plain. Science, she notes, has been unduly politicized, which makes it harder for scientists to build the case for research, especially government-funded research. It also makes it harder for the foundation’s own grantees to promote the implications of their work. Scientists do not really have a choice but to get involved in civic debate, especially civic debate over science.

“As we examine the intersection of science and civil society, we see opportunities for our foundation to nurture an ecosystem of more robust public support and understanding of science,” Christopherson has said. 

Christopherson is actually Rita Allen’s first-ever chief executive. She was hired in 2009.  Her interest in the media and the public square derives from her own professional background.  She was the first female executive director of New Jersey’s public broadcasting network (NJN), and served on the PBS board. She also chaired the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Under her leadership, the board has expanded in size and formally broadened the foundation’s mission to include “civic literacy and engagement.” The foundation’s current assets are estimated at $165 million.