Looking back at the year in science philanthropy, there were a lot of big stories, but none as pervasive as the influx of cash going to research leveraging large amounts of data. Staggering sums flowed to initiatives aimed at crunching staggering numbers.
Throughout 2014, we saw several huge donations to boost interdisciplinary work in data science—from foundations, individuals, corporations and alumni. That alone would be noteworthy, but another interesting thread is the number of grants across disciplines that, if not solely focused on analyzing massive amounts of data, included it as a major part of their strategies. It got to the point where I considered putting out a jar on my desk so I could throw in a dollar every time I wrote the phrase “big data.” (I really should have done that as tax time is rapidly approaching.)
There are a lot of reasons for this activity, which we have discussed here. There’s the fact that foundations like to get in on hot new fields. There’s the sense of opportunity, given how, in many fields, the problem is no longer collecting enough information; it's managing all the information that exists. Also the fact that funders like playing the role of convener, and data analysis is increasingly requiring cooperation between fields.
But whether it was autism research, neuroscience, marine biology, or study of social media, quantification brought in the cash. Here are some 2014 highlights from data-related science philanthropy.
The microblogging platform makes a bunch of money selling its data, and donates a bunch of it (the “firehose” of its entire stream of tweets). But in 2014, we saw Twitter actually make a big cash grant to study social media data. Twitter gave $10 million to MIT to establish a new research center, run by its own chief media adviser, to study the full stream of tweets and other social media. The goal is to figure out how to use social media for constructive purposes, in coordination with journalists and political activists.
Bill Neukom, the wealthy former lawyer for Microsoft, has a longstanding relationship with Dartmouth College and a keen interest in science. Neukom gave his latest large gift to establish an academic cluster that will inject complex computing and data analysis to other fields like neuroscience, the environment, and social sciences. Dartmouth is a small liberal arts school that has always had one foot in the computer science realm, dating back to the creation of the BASIC programming language.
Jaffray Woodriff, a finance whiz who made his fortune with complex predictive modeling, gave $10 million to his alma mater University of Virginia to endow a Data Science Institute. The center will combine disciplines to conduct instruction and research on data analysis as it relates to engineering, science, medicine, business, ethics, and computing.
The data science centers just kept popping up, and yet another $10 million grant from the family behind the beloved grocery store chain established the Institute for Data Science at the University of Rochester. "Data science is the defining discipline of the 21st century,” the university president announced, and Wegman’s CEO agreed.
Heavyweight science funders including Kavli, HHMI, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science pooled efforts along with universities and research institutions to get big brain science projects speaking the same language when it comes to sharing massive stores of data. While huge brain science initiatives are cranking away, their power will be limited if they can’t freely exchange what they’re collecting.
The Simons Foundation is one of the most exciting funders in science today, and most of what it funds has some element of quantitative science, given Jim Simons’ amazing background in mathematics. One of its biggest grants of the year went to Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory to create a Center for Quantitative Biology, which will apply computational science to biology.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is one of the most prominent health care funders in the land, but it’s recently taken an interest in health data, both genomic and personal, and how it can be used to improve care. RWJF gave a $1.9 million grant to bring together personal data companies and health researchers. It also joined the Knight Foundation to support the Personal Genome Project, a publicly available bank of volunteered genomic data.
Along with Simons and Sloan, Moore is one of the leading funders in this area, and in 2014, it backed 14 new researchers, the Moore Investigators in Data-Driven Discovery. This funding program is all about using data to achieve major breakthroughs in research. Grants went to a combination of researchers for data-related work in their own fields, as well as those working specifically on tools to be put in action by others. A lot of the grants had an emphasis on open source, or other forms of collaboration on methods and information.
While 2014 was a big year for data in science research, it will by no means be the last. If anything, it almost feels like it’s becoming more of a pervasive element across philanthropy, similar to how climate change is at least in the background in so many environment programs. We're eager to see how this giving unfolds in 2015.