In his career as an award-winning Harvard astronomer, Robert Kirshner has seen how different streams of funding can impact a scientific field.
Having benefitted from NASA and NSF funding, he’s seen the way government programs—such as observational astronomy funding connected to the Hubble Space Telescope—can allow a field to grow. At the same time, private wealth has funded construction of many of the world’s most powerful telescopes, making the United States a world leader.
In 2015, Kirshner entered a new act in his career, overseeing a sizable pool of such funds himself, along with the capability to make a significant impact on his own field and others. As chief program officer in charge of science for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, he’s working for a funder with $6.4 billion in assets and directing science giving topping $100 million annually, with all the opportunities and challenges that come with moving that kind of cash.
“It’s a tremendous privilege, because we're at a scale where we can really move the needle,” Kirshner says. “If we want to steer 10 or 15 million dollars a year into an area, we can do it. And if you define that area narrowly enough, it really will change what people are doing and accelerate the rate of progress.”
Moore’s science grantmaking currently funds areas like big data research, quantum materials and marine microbiology. Kirshner’s also overseeing Moore’s support for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a beleaguered project that, if planners can find an appropriate site, could transform our observation and understanding of the universe.
Kirshner spoke with Inside Philanthropy about making the move to a foundation, what philanthropy can and can’t accomplish, and how one of the country’s largest private funders of science research decides what and who it’s going to support.
As a tenured Harvard professor with a bundle of awards and a very cushy Cambridge office, Kirshner had just about everything an academic researcher could want. So when he first sat down with Harvey Fineberg (who previously served as provost of Harvard) to discuss whether he’d be interested in a job at Moore, his initial thought was, “Of course not.”
But already nudged westward by Boston’s punishing 2014-2015 winter, he started to like the idea of the job as a new way to boost others’ careers, not unlike his role as a mentor in academia.
“I’ve had students who won the Nobel Prize, so I have for a long time been in the business of helping other people succeed,” he says. “And I thought that it might be fun to emphasize that part of what I've been able to do over the decades, and do something a little bit different, but that was consistent with that thread.”
Kirshner also arrived in a time of transition for the foundation, following a major leadership and staffing shakeup, and a moment when its donors were setting an institutional trajectory for well beyond their own lifetimes. The foundation had a particularly rough patch around 2014, a period of high staff turnover and the abrupt departure of President Steven McCormick. Fineberg was hired for the top job later that year to steady the ship.
In 2015, around the time Kirshner came on board, Gordon and Betty Moore wrote up a “Statement of Founders’ Intent,” outlining how the couple envisioned the foundation’s giving into the future. The Moores are still in the mix—Gordon, now 88, is chairman of the board and attends every quarterly meeting, and they regularly speak with the foundation’s leadership.
Kirshner puts a lot of stock in that Statement of Founders’ Intent document, which offers direction such as placing scientific methodology at the core of giving, focusing on work that’s measurable, and in areas where the foundation can make an enduring difference.
Also guiding the way is an eight-person science advisory board, including renowned biochemist and former NAS president Bruce Alberts, and MIT Vice President for Research and National Science Board Chair Maria Zuber. Kirshner oversees a science program staff of 17 who advise on grants and watch for new opportunities.
But they try to keep funding pretty steady, hewing closely to established priorities. Grants from 2016 averaged a term of 26 months and median amount of $545,000. Moore runs its major initiatives on renewal periods of five years, intercut by evaluations. “We try to be steady enough so that once we’ve embarked on something, as long as it looks promising, we're going to stick with it,” Kirshner says.
From Kirshner’s description, it sounds like Moore is running a high-risk research program in terms of subject matter (more on that soon), but doing so in a fairly measured, conservative manner. “You have to have the right balance between exploring new possibilities and sticking with it… We don't want to be the foundation that is going to be part of the pack following the latest fad.”
And of course, as a researcher himself, he’s fond of Gordon and Betty Moore’s advice “not to jerk the grantees around.”
Risk, Reward and Court Battles
Two of the most important guidelines from the Statement of Founders’ Intent are to support work that is measurable, and that can make an enduring difference. But this can also be tricky in science philanthropy.
There’s a tension we see often in giving to basic science, which, like most philanthropy, hungers for demonstrable results, but also tries to live the gospel of the slow, unpredictable nature of fundamental research. Support the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, funders say, and the eventual discoveries and applications are profound.
“We have a very strong sense that we are on the right track, that we know that it's true: If you support basic science and use rational thought, that's the way to solve the world's problems,” Kirshner says. “But only in the long run.” The foundation is tasked with sticking to the main ideas of what it wants to pursue, while not defining success too narrowly, he says.
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When it comes to deciding if they can make a lasting impact on a particular issue, Moore also walks an interesting line. The foundation has a lot of money. But compared to the grand scheme of national funding for science research, it's not that much, really. While private science funders have the advantage of being able to give to quite literally whatever they want, they’re tasked with figuring out where their relatively modest budgets can best make an impact. In Moore’s case, they try to direct significant support to promising but underfunded areas of research.
Moore’s main science initiatives right now include marine microbiology, a long-running interest of the foundation; EPiQs, a quantum materials program; and data-driven discovery, which is essentially studying big data in academic settings. The foundation also has a substantial commitment to Caltech, and a recently added Inventor Fellows program, two lines of giving that connect directly to Gordon Moore’s career.
As a lot of science funders profess, Moore sees its role as one of being able to accept risk. “We want to be more daring than a conscientious public servant at the National Science Foundation would be.” But again, they embark on that risk with some measures of caution.
They tend to layer different levels of risk, Kirshner says. For example, the foundation supports the Advanced Imaging Center at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, where private funds build powerful instruments to which researchers wouldn’t otherwise have access, and donate time to work on them. Not a ton of risk. On the other end of the spectrum is funding to develop a prototype quantum electron microscope, which would allow scientists to view living things at the scale where the basic chemical reactions of life are happening. That one is “kind of out there,” Kirshner says, but it might transform a field.
The foundation's investigator awards also commonly support individual researchers who also have government agency funding that tends to be more restricted, while Moore funding gives them some flexibility to pursue new ideas, he says.
Finally, there’s the Thirty Meter Telescope, a program area that’s right in Kirshner’s wheelhouse, but has run up against a different kind of risk. Moore has pledged $250 million to this joint project of six institutions, which stands to be the most powerful optical telescope on the planet. It would be able to see many times further and with more clarity than previous telescopes, allowing astronomers to measure light from the first galaxies, study the growth of massive black holes, or better understand star and planet formation.
The TMT has been stalled in legal disputes, however, as Native Hawaiian and environmental activists are taking a strong stance against its construction on dormant volcano Mauna Kea. The mountain has ideal viewing conditions, and is currently the site of 13 telescopes. It's also sacred land to Native Hawaiians, and the project has become a battleground over longstanding issues of colonialism, Hawaiian sovereignty, indigenous rights and spiritual and cultural rights.
According to Kirshner, the foundation and its grantees knew developing the telescope would be challenging, and made efforts early on to understand and address community concerns, but “a number of conditions changed in Hawaii that frayed the earlier support.” While project planners are still hoping to build on Mauna Kea pending legal decisions, they’re also pursuing another possible location in the Canary Islands.
Do the Arithmetic
In his career as an astronomer and now as a grantmaker, Kirshner has seen the importance of government funding for science, and how philanthropy can add to it.
But like many researchers, he has become concerned that American science funding is in jeopardy. That’s become more apparent as grantmaking has increased his exposure to a wide variety of fields, and as the Trump administration has threatened deep cuts across already lagging federal research spending.
“There is a kind of malnutrition of the scientific enterprise and it's really a problem,” Kirshner says. “Now, philanthropy can help, but you’ve got to do the arithmetic.”
For example, in a 2016 survey by the Science Philanthropy Alliance, respondents reported a total of $2.3 billion in private funding for basic science research, comparing that to the roughly $38 billion per year the federal government gives to higher education institutions for research and development.
While funders like Moore send significant dollars to basic science research, and underscore philanthropy’s importance, they also find themselves fighting the notion that philanthropy can replace government agency funding.
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Instead, Kirshner says the team at Moore views its funding as feeding into work at the federal government level, either complementing existing efforts, or funding work that may one day land wider government support. For one example, the foundation is currently funding proof of concept for a nanosatellite that could monitor color changes in oceans to indicate things like harmful algal blooms.
“We like to get out on the front edge if we can. We'll do things that the [government] agencies wouldn't do. But we know that when it comes time for the big implementations, you have to make the case, and then you have to get the scientific community onboard to help the agencies choose wisely.”
For Kirshner, even after a lifetime of gazing at the stars, getting out on that front edge, now through grantmaking, continues to open new doors to him.
“That's the great thing about this job,” he says. “I get to go through a lot of doors that say, ‘authorized personnel only.’ Go on the ship, go to the electron accelerator, be at the observatory. And being out there with the scientists is the thing that is really inspiring.”