A Historic Gift Seeks to Put a University on the Leading Edge of Brain Science

Brown university. photo: Anthony Ricci/shutterstock

Brown university. photo: Anthony Ricci/shutterstock

This is an era of excitement and growth for the field of brain research, due in part to the development of new technologies that have enabled researchers to track neural function in what was once a highly opaque aspect of physiology. And as Inside Philanthropy has noted, the field has similarly captured the interest of individual philanthropists and foundations. In recent years, these funders have begun to envision an opportunity to answer age-old scientific questions of basic function, and even more importantly, to apply that knowledge in the development of treatments for neurological injuries and diseases such as Alzheimer's, mental illness, and degenerative disorders like Parkinson's.    

Big-ticket philanthropists like Paul Allen and Joan and Sanford Weill have made brain research a key prong of their philanthropic giving, and have pumped hundreds of millions into the field. Two notable newcomers to the field are the Chinese billionaires Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo, who announced in 2016 that they're dedicating an initial $1 billion to a new initiative focused on brain discovery, treatment and development. So far, they've given $115 million to CalTech to establish the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience. In 2015, we wrote about a $50 million gift to USC for brain research by a venture capitalist Mark Stevens and his wife Mary. 

RelatedChina’s Rising Philanthropy Presents the Next Big Brain Science Donor

Other brain-focused outfits, such as Kavli Foundation and Simons Foundation, continue to provide substantial support as well. Additional momentum comes from the NIH BRAIN Initiative, launched five years ago by President Obama.   

As we mentioned, new technology is a huge driver of brain research today. Vast amounts of data are generated in mapping and studying the brain. An important part of brain research and philanthropy involves the development of new systems to enable data sharing and analysis in the United States and internationally.

Related: Science Funders Hope to Link Up Large Scale Brain Research

Now, yet another deep-pocketed giver has entered this burgeoning space. Robert J. Carney and Nancy D. Carney recently committed $100 million to Brown University’s brain science institute. Robert Carney—a founder and chairman of Vacation Publications Inc. and a founder of Jet Capital Corp., which owned Continental and other airlines—is a Brown alum.

With goals similar to those of other neuroscience funders, the gift aims to "drive an ambitious agenda to quicken the pace of scientific discovery and help find cures to some of the world’s most persistent and devastating diseases, such as ALS and Alzheimer’s."

Brown University has made brain science a core research priority. It's no coincidence that the Carneys' recent gift is one of the largest single donations in the school's 254-year history. 

The Carneys' gift to Brown changes the name of the Brown Institute for Brain Science to the Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science. According to the university, it will become one of the best-endowed university brain institutes in the country. It's in good company—like that $185 million gift from the Weills to the University of California-San Francisco to establish the Weill Institute for Neurosciences.

Brown says the Carney donation will enable them to hire top faculty and scholars, fund new research, and buy all that technology that's so crucial to advance in this field. This will include Brown's work on brain-computer interfaces for patients with spinal injury and paralysis, computational neuroscience to address behavior and mood disorders, and research into therapies for neurodegenerative conditions like ALS and Alzheimer's.

We all want to see major breakthroughs in brain science, and these may, indeed, prove to be revolutionary decades for the field. But it's important to keep expectations (and perhaps funding strategies) in line with how progress in medical research actually occurs. Almost 50 years ago, the war on cancer was launched. Since then, there have been incremental advances in cancer treatment, but the war isn't won. Just a couple of years ago, the "Cancer Moonshot 2020" was announced. It'll probably contribute to meaningful advances, but not a cure.

Cancer and brain disorder research are not moonshots. They're inherently different kinds of problems. Biomedical researchers are probably not ever going to achieve the autism or cancer versions of sending people to the moon and returning them safely to earth. The important thing is that funders realize that success here is likely to be incremental, and hang in for the long haul.

RelatedWhy Donors Give Big for Campus Research: A $50 Million Case Study at USC