A Philanthropic Fellowship Where Research Meets Environmental Crisis

 photo: Monstar Studio/shutterstock

photo: Monstar Studio/shutterstock

Famed biologist E.O. Wilson refers to the field of conservation biology as a “discipline with a deadline.” That is, while it’s an area of academic research chasing down new knowledge, it's a mission-driven one racing against a biodiversity crisis. 

It’s also described as a synthetic field, meaning it merges multiple academic disciplines like genetics and population biology, with field work such as wildlife and land management. Closing that gap between research and application can be challenging, and the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship is one of a limited number of postdoc fellowship programs funding work that does just that. The fellowship is a collaboration between the Society for Conservation Biology and the Cedar Tree Foundation. The two-year program pays early career scientists an annual salary and research funding, with a goal of bridging that divide between theory and application. 

One of the cool things about this fellowship is that it pairs fellows with both an academic institution and a conservation organization. So selected scientists get research experience, but also they build connections and understanding of how conservation efforts work on the ground. A team of mentoring academics and those working in conservation show new fellows the ropes.

You can read more about the work the Smith Fellows are doing here, but one notable example is a policy briefing that a team of fellows released in support of banning plastic microbeads in personal care products. Other issues range from water scarcity to the impacts of climate change on conservation priorities. 

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The fellowship has been around since 1998, when it was founded by its namesake David Smith, who also started the Cedar Tree Foundation a bit earlier. He was not a conservation biologist himself, but a pediatrician. Smith, who died of cancer in 1999, started a very early biotech startup to develop a vaccine for the bacteria that cause spinal meningitis. He succeeded, leading to a sharp reduction in cases among young children.

Smith was also an active conservationist. He originally started the fellowship with the Nature Conservancy, but it has since moved over to the Society for Conservation Biology. Today, his family and a small staff carry on his legacy through the Boston-based Cedar Tree Foundation, which last reported assets of nearly $100 million and also operates programs in environmental health, sustainable agriculture and other environmental issues. 

There aren't many philanthropic programs quite like this one, although a number of foundations back NGOs carrying out this type of work. Packard is one notable example of a major funder backing science as it applies to conservation solutions. Another example is the Wilburforce Foundation, which has its own fellowship supporting conservation science. 

The field's cross-disciplinary nature, however, makes it a good fit for philanthropy—something that requires a level of collaboration and overlap that might be overlooked by traditional funding sources. 

The Smith Fellowships also take a valued approach we often see in science philanthropy—that of funding early career scientists in that tenuous time after completing a doctorate, who sometimes struggle to land support for their research. In that sense, this program is also seeking to strengthen something of a niche scientific field, while making progress in conservation applications.