Six Topics in Science that Scored Big in 2014

Science philanthropy had a bit of a moment in 2014, with some major news stories, plus a growing sense that wealthy donors are gaining influence in an area fueled by public funds. 

There was a lot of big news in science funding this year. Some fancy new awards. Ongoing fretting about what Congress wants to do to research funding. Sad news about Fred Kavli. And the paper of record featured some of the larger players, including Jim Simons.

We thought it would be interesting to take a break from gift wrapping and look at some of the general topics in research that won 2014. Here are some big winners from the past year:

1. All things data: Throughout 2014, we saw a number of 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 major parts of their strategies. Here's our roundup

2. Oceans: Funding for research on marine ecosystems was a major trend in philanthropy in 2014. Funders like Packard and the Moore Foundation remained leaders in this field, including the latter’s Marine Microbiology Initiative, which made a handful of six-figure grants for the study of microorganism ecosystems. And Wendy and Eric Schmidt expanded their work in ocean research by loaning out top-notch research vessels

But people we never knew were interested in this sort of thing also made large commitments to ocean protection and research. The biggest news here was when when the Simons Foundation, probably the most exciting science funder out there right now, decided to get into ocean research. The funder announced the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE), which is already staffed and starting work out of the University of Hawaii. Simons also named a bunch of new investigators working on marine research. While Paul Allen made headlines for his big funding to fight Ebola in 2014, he also began to flesh out his science-y ocean conservation program with a $2.6 million grant to the University of British Columbia. 

And while these are more conservation-related, Mike Bloomberg made an out-of-the-blue, $53 million grant for conservation groups Ocean, Rare, and IKO Asset Management Partners. And Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss recently made a $10 million commitment to Oceana.

3. Brains: My comrade Kristina Strain wrote a lot of great stuff about this throughout 2014 (in fact, for more on health research, be sure to check out our dedicated sections, and Kristina’s look at the year’s grants), but brain science continued to be a priority for philanthropists. Probably the biggest news here was the ramping up of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative and the snowballing effect it’s having on other philanthropies lining up behind it. The White House also orchestrated an effort to study the damage associated with concussions sustained by athletes, drawing $65 million in private funding. We also took note of a philanthropy-led effort to get the multiple, massive brain research projects on the same page when it comes to sharing data. And the Simons Foundation launched the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain, which funds several theorists and experimentalists to better understand the mechanistic functioning of the brain.

4. Genes: Genomic research, going hand-in-hand with the rise of big data analysis, was off the charts in 2014. The biggest story by far was Ted Stanley’s stunning $650 million gift to mental health research at the Broad Institute, a research center that grew out of the Human Genome Project. But there were a bunch of multi-million-dollar gifts in 2014 for the study of genetic information to determine causes and treatments for various diseases, like cancer or autism, for example. We also saw some big gifts to develop technologies related to genomic engineering, as in the case of Li Ka-Shing’s $10 million gift to Berkeley.

5. Integrity and Open Science: Following some embarrassing cases of scientific fraud and an overall rise in retractions at scientific journals, we saw heightened attention paid to improving the integrity and transparency of the scientific process. The leader in this arena is, hands down, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which has a huge program on research integrity. Arnold is new on the scene, and has no small ambitions. In 2014, the foundation continued devoting huge funds to the Center for Open Science, as well as the Nutrition Science Initiative, which looks to improve the rigor in this scattered field. The other big news story of the year was the Gates Foundation announcing its implementation of strict rules governing the openness and availability of research by its grantees. And just recently, MacArthur gave $400,000 to the blog Retraction Watch to make its coverage more comprehensive, including a database of nearly all retractions in major scientific journals.

6. Mathematics: While there may not have been many massive grants for mathematics, I’m still including it on the list for a couple of reasons. First, as I mentioned above, the Simons Foundation is funding some of the most interesting work in research right now, and its giving is accelerating. Mathematics runs through the foundation’s veins. And this year, two of the four winners of the Fields Medal, the most distinguished prize in mathematics, were Simons grantees. Speaking of prizes, there was one other big breakthrough in mathematics in 2014—the introduction of the Breakthrough Prizes in Mathematics. Five mathematicians won the inaugural round of the glitzy math awards, each taking home $3 million.

There you have it. Those are my big stories in science research for the year. And if the trajectories we saw in 2014 continue with some of these big funders, we're going to have a lot more to talk about next year.