Survey: Basic Science Philanthropy Mostly Heading to Life Sciences and Top Institutions

 photo: Gorodenkoff/shutterstock

photo: Gorodenkoff/shutterstock

While government funding for science is centrally distributed and tracked under the watchful eyes of civil servants and elected officials, philanthropy is a relative free-for-all. Donors and foundations can basically give money to any issue, researcher or institution they want, and aside from some diligent folks poring over tax forms, there’s not a lot of coordinated tracking. 

When the Science Philanthropy Alliance launched in 2012 with a goal of increasing philanthropic support for basic science research and helping funders give most effectively, it set out to pull some baseline numbers together. Its approach is to survey research institutions on where they’re getting money from. 

The Private Funding of Basic Science Survey recently posted its third year of results, and while the numbers aren’t comprehensive (it’s a voluntary survey, after all) they have been suggesting some interesting trends in science philanthropy. For one, funding is consistently quite concentrated by both subject matter and institutions receiving funds. 

The total amount reported for 2017 was $2.3 billion, about the same reported the previous year, even though a handful more institutions responded. At the same time, there may actually be an upward trend happening—looking only at the 25 institutions that have responded all three years, giving has increased by 40 percent during that span. According to the alliance, the reason the overall number reported didn’t increase in the latest survey is that a handful of larger institutions participated in 2016, but did not participate in 2017. Forty-six institutions, or 58 percent of those asked, responded in the latest survey. 

You can see how pinning this information down can be a slippery task, and we can be pretty certain the actual overall number is significantly higher than $2.3 billion. We also know that private funding is still much less than government funding for basic science.

A consistent finding from the Science Philanthropy Alliance surveys has been that life sciences are landing the overwhelming majority of funding: 87 percent or $2 billion of the total reported by institutions for 2017. Physical sciences, on the other hand, bring in just 11 percent, and mathematics receives just 2 percent. 

Leading institutions also hauled in an outsized portion of funding, with the top 10 recipients, or 22 percent of respondents, receiving 65 percent of the total amount. In the first study in 2015, half of reported funds went to just five institutions. 

So why, out of America’s colorful billionaire class, are so many funders interested in science giving to the same fields and grantees? 

We can only speculate, but on the life sciences front, this somewhat reflects the overall state of research funding. After all, the NIH has a $37 billion annual budget, compared to $7.5 billion at the NSF. There’s also the fact that, for many private funders of science, the motivation is personal, related to a particular health concern. 

In terms of the small number of recipients receiving such a large amount, this also isn’t too surprising, considering an overall tendency in philanthropy to throw money at prominent institutions. There’s the phenomenon known as the Matthew Effect, which in science philanthropy translates to already successful researchers (or institutions, in this case) tending to accumulate recognition and funding. Funders can fall into this groove of backing well-known researchers in an effort to mitigate risk. 

Hopefully, the more we learn about the numbers behind private science funding, more donors new and old will calibrate and even coordinate their giving in ways that best complement other funding streams out there. More data will also help to understand where private philanthropy fits into the larger ecosystem of science funding the United States, and how well it's serving the public interest and the interests of the scientific community, as signs point to a growing sector.