Controversial U.K. Billionaire’s Giving is on the Rise, Including Big Science Funding

photo:  Denis Makarenko/shutterstock

photo:  Denis Makarenko/shutterstock

A couple years back, we highlighted Len Blavatnik as a philanthropist to watch, following some big gifts to schools like Yale and Harvard, along with a growing suite of research prizes. His profile has certainly continued to grow, thanks to his philanthropy, and some other not-so-welcome reasons. 

Sure, the Soviet-born, U.S.-U.K. dual citizen was knighted in 2017 for his philanthropy. But Blavatnik also sparked a controversy by giving $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, leading a prominent professor at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government to quit, furious. Oxford had previously come under fire for accepting Blavatnik’s funding, over alleged corporate abuses, and connections to the Putin regime (which he has denied). He’s also emerged as a large GOP donor, taking a sharp right turn in the 2015-2016 election cycle that has drawn scrutiny amid investigations into influence on U.S. elections, due to his Russian business connections.  


That really only scratches the surface of Blavatnik’s fiction-worthy career, which boomed after shrewd commodity investments during the fall of the Soviet Union, and now includes media holdings like Warner Music Group. But at the end of the day, the guy is extremely wealthy, among the richest in the U.K. with a surging net worth of $21.5 billion.

With his rise, Blavatnik’s philanthropy has also grown, backing a lot of arts and higher ed institutions, and, in the United States and beyond, science research. 

He first became a player in this arena with the 2007 launch of an awards program focusing on early-career scientists in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, in partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences. In 2013, the awards launched a national version, giving out $250,000 prizes for life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and chemistry. Now, in 2018, the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists have gone worldwide, with a version in the U.K. and in Israel (check out the inaugural U.K. winners here). So 10 years in, with prizes covering four geographies, the Blavatniks are now a thing. 

The philanthropist has also continued to make significant donations to universities, which is his usual MO for giving. Among Blavatnik's largest-ever gifts was a $50 million donation to Harvard (where he got his MBA) in 2013 to advance early-stage technologies and entrepreneurs in the life sciences. 

Blavatnik recently made a similar tech/biomedical crossover gift to Columbia (where he also studied) of $10 million. That grant will fund research at the intersection of engineering and health, to help move new breakthroughs to market. Funding will support doctoral fellowships, and an accelerator fund for late-stage research on the way to commercialization. Blavatnik seems to have an affinity for the stage of biomedical research where developments make their way to industry. 

While Blavatnik’s giving has become something of a lightning rod, especially in the U.K., his philanthropy doesn’t seem to be slowing down or diminishing in profile—see large 2017 gifts to the U.K.'s Tate Modern and V&A museums. Quite the contrary, his name is all over the institutions he supports. 

Of course, Blavatnik’s not the first philanthropist, supporting science or otherwise, to support the GOP, despite many in the party undermining research budgets that form the backbone of the American scientific enterprise. And he's not the first to have controversial political and business connections—far from it. There have long been tensions between the ideals of donors and the institutions they support; in science and academia alone, consider backlash toward the Koch Brothers or the politically conservative and religion-focused Templeton Foundation


But with growing inequality, Silicon Valley scandals, the rise of Trumpism, and even the current reckoning over sexual abuse and harassment, it does seem that the threshold of tolerance for various activities among super-wealthy benefactors is being tested. We’ve recently seen growing ire and suspicion toward a range of philanthropists like Peter Thiel, Yuri Milner, and Robert Mercer and his (former) investment firm Renaissance Technologies. On the left, there’s science funder and Democratic donor Jim Simons (founder of Renaissance, who urged Mercer to step down as his alt-right scandal grew), and the revelation that he has an $8 billion foundation that's based offshore in Bermuda. 

In short, people are watching very closely these days where money is coming from, and where else it is going, more so than we’ve seen in a very long time. Just last week, we explored the challenges that can arise in regard to major gifts from donors who are surrounded by controversy. 

The dustups over Blavatnik’s increasing giving illustrate the question of where institutions and beneficiaries will draw the line. At the very least, Len Blavatnik remains one to watch.