What a Top Science Funder is Learning From Its Deep Dive Into a Risky Area



In recent decades, new advances have signaled a lot of promise in the study of so-called quantum materials, which yield unusual phenomena like superconductivity, and could lead to exciting new discoveries in physics and applications like energy transmission. 

But around 2007, a National Academy of Sciences panel found that there wasn’t enough flexible funding in the U.S. research landscape, threatening to stunt progress in the unpredictable area of study. 

That concern led the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to make basic scientific research of quantum materials a funding priority, dedicating in 2013 an initial $90 million to build the field. Now, the foundation is renewing its support with the second phase of its EPiQS initiative, adding on another six years and $95 million in support. 

Private science funders frequently cite a certain tolerance for risk as their key contribution to the ecosystem of research funding, either by offering larger, longer-term, or more flexible chunks of money than other sources commonly offer. But it’s not always clear just how risky and innovative their approaches are, or whether they are paying off. 

After all, how do you gauge if a program is successful, when its whole point is being comfortable with the unpredictable and long-term process of basic scientific research?  

Before the Moore Foundation re-upped its EPiQS initiative, it conducted a couple of in-depth evaluations to tackle these questions. Both available on their website, they reveal some interesting insights into how private research funders embrace and mitigate their risk, and how they work to differentiate themselves from larger, public funding sources. 

It’s too early to answer the question of whether the initiative met its goal to “catalyze transformative change,” a tough outcome to define that could take many years to emerge. But an external evaluation of the program by RTI International did note progress, including a steady growth in journal articles acknowledging the program (from 72 in 2015 to 247 in 2017). Individual research results also made a splash within the community, and new techniques and instruments are being developed. They found, overall, that the funding helped to gel a distinct field, and build the pool of up-and-coming talent working in it. 

The evaluation also took stock of how the program is designed, and whether that’s making a unique impact on the field.

One strategy in particular that evaluators looked at was one embraced by other major private funders—as HHMI defines it, funding “people, not projects.” While most federal research grants are made based on a particular project, and secondarily on the applicant, in this case, Moore emphasized the potential of the investigator with the idea that they want to empower them to chase bold ideas and go where their work leads them.

The application process itself was very different from other funding programs, restricting proposal length and disallowing figures or references. Evaluators found that this yielded a unique pool of proposals from other existing funding channels.

Also, while the federal government distributes more funding overall than EPiQS, agencies give smaller amounts to a much larger number of awardees, and for a shorter grant periods. Moore also encouraged grantees to venture out of their comfort zones, into unfamiliar science where the outcome is uncertain but could be significant.

This is a strategy we see among private science funders that allows them to provide more leeway for researchers to take risks. But to hedge the risk they take in terms of subject matter and amounts of support, they also fund fewer actual scientists who must clear a high bar for entry. 

Evaluators noted that expanding the pool of grantees could offer benefits, but cautioned that it would increase risk, and warned against decreasing individual grant size. One piece of criticism identified in the report was that, by funding a small number of investigators, the initiative could be seen as too exclusive.  

Other findings from evaluators include:

  • The program placed a big emphasis on funding postdocs, which built up the pipeline of researchers studying quantum materials. Almost all former postdocs funded have found employment at research institutes. 

  • EPiQS funding allowed individual grantees to leverage funds for greater support from other sources like federal agencies. However, while agencies have named quantum materials as a priority, there’s been limited new money to back it. 

  • The foundation should stick with supporting individual researchers rather than forming a research center. This provides more flexibility and reduces administrative burden. 

  • A big benefit of EPiQS has been the collaborative aspect, with annual symposia and sponsorship of other conferences helping the field take shape and forging connections. 

The analysis of Moore’s initiative provides a unique look at a basic science funder carving out its role in a field and grappling with whether that role is the right one as the years pass.

One of the most interesting aspects here is that, as a private funder, it’s working to strike a different chord than broader, larger federal funding sources. But it’s also well aware of the importance of complementing and leveraging these funding sources that go well beyond its own limited scope.

This underscores just how important it is for private funders to see themselves as unique, but complementary players in a much larger ecosystem of research dollars.