Familiar Lesson of Science Give: Government Looks to Philanthropy to Get Stuff Done

Not along ago, if a president wanted to solve a problem, he invited top congressional leaders to the White House. These days, he seems just as likely to call in top philanthropists and foundation chiefs. 

For one thing, these folks have spare cashin contrast to an increasingly strapped federal government, in which non-defense discretionary spending is now on a downward glide path to levels not seen since World War II, as measured by GDP. That shrinking pot of money includes everything from environmental protection to education to space exploration.

It also includes scientific and medical research. But these are grim days for science funding as budgets are kept flat or cut across most areas of non-mandatory spending. And if Tea Party types in Congress aren't moved by urgent warnings that the U.S. is falling behind in science, what's a president to do?

Call in big private funders, that's what.

The recent White House Science Fair showcased the work of bright young students whose work excelled at STEM competitions and science fairs across the country. The event also gave President Obama the opportunity to announce new commitments from the private and nonprofit sectors to support scientists in the early stages of their careers, as well as encourage more young peopleespecially from historically underrepresented groupsto pursue STEM studies and careers.

Most notably, the president’s announcements included a new philanthropic initiative that unites three leading funders of scientific research to provide new support to scientists who are in the early stages of their careers.

As competition for grants has intensified and budgets have grown tighter, it has become increasingly difficult for new scientists in the early stages of their research careers to establish and develop programs of research. In the last 20 years, the U.S. has seen a decline in National Institutes of Health research award success rates, as well as an increase in the average age of first-time R01 grantees.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Simons Foundation are the three funders under this new Faculty Scholars Program. The three funders will put a combined $148 million into the program for its first five years.

We've seen this movie before. Just last year, President Obama mobilized leading foundations to support "My Brother's Keeper," an initiative to help close the opportunity gap for young men and boys of color. Here, too, the White House has looked to private funders to help solve a major national problem that a strapped and divided government was fumbling. 

Of course, some version of this same script plays out all the time at the local level, where public institutions like parks and schools increasingly rely on philanthropy. These gifts often come with strings attached, and underscore a broader shift of power away from the public sector and toward private wealth. That's not great for democracy.

As for the new science initiative, the program will award up to 70 grants every two and a half years to early-career scientists whose work shows promise. Individual grants will range in size from $100,000 to $400,000. In addition, the awardee’s institution will receive an amount equal to 20 percent of the yearly grant for administrative costs.

To be eligible for a grant under this new initiative, candidates must have a Ph.D., M.D., or equivalent; be in a tenured or tenure-track position of assistant professor or higher at an eligible U.S. institution of higher education; have four to ten years of post-training professional experience; and be principal or co-principal investigator on at least one active, nationally competitive grant with a term of two or more years between April 2013 and July 2015 (see this link to the HHMI website for the application eligibility section).

Scientific research funding programs are firmly in the wheelhouse of scientific funders such as HHMI and Simons. Gates has not operated STEM-specific funding programs, but it funds many STEM-related initiatives through its education and global health programs. Besides, the Gates Foundation’s size alone makes it a significant player in any funding area it chooses to enter.

With this program, HHMI, Simons, and Gates are emphasizing a need in the STEM funding arena that we write about oftena solid base of research funding for scientists in the early stages of their careersand have applied their considerable resources to the problem. At least somebody has some extra resources these days.