Just How Much Are Private Funders Giving to Basic Science Research?

A survey of 2015 private giving to basic research found $1.2 billion to science and $2.2 billion across disciplines, and that’s a very low estimate. Science Philanthropy Alliance's president shed some light on their results.

It’s generally accepted that government funding for science research in the United States has faltered in recent years, and that private philanthropy is playing an increasing role in the research landscape. But that picture has been incomplete.

For example, we know that despite some relief in 2016, federal funding of research and development at higher education institutions fell by more than 11 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to the National Science Foundation.

But on the other end of things—just how much private money is flowing in—it’s less certain. That can lead to vague narratives about privatization of American science, as well as uncertainty about how much funding is needed and in what areas. Donors and foundations are giving several billions of dollars with limited information about the funding landscape.

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To start grasping the extent of private funding, the Science Philanthropy Alliance—a group of funders that launched in 2012 and includes heavyweights like HHMI and the Kavli, Simons, and Moore foundations—completed the first-ever survey of higher education institutions and private funding of basic research. 

“[We] believe that an increase in philanthropic support for basic research is critical to our future, but by how much does it need to increase?” emailed Marc Kastner, SPA president, about the results. “We need a baseline to understand how large philanthropic support is now, in order to estimate how much it would need to increase to make a difference.”

The results are just a start, SPA cautions, as only 42 percent of Association of American Universities members responded, but are nonetheless revealing about what’s happening in this arena.

There’s a lot of giving happening, and this is a lowball estimate

The survey found $1.2 billion in private funding to basic research in the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics in 2015, out of $2.2 billion in private funding for basic research across all academic disciplines. About 45 percent of that funding came from foundations, 22 percent from corporations, and 18 percent from individuals.  

But it’s crucial to point out just how low these numbers probably are. Again, this is only 26 of 62 AAU institutions, leaving out some major players.  

“Knowing that the number will be significantly larger when you add in Harvard and Stanford and many other schools, it is surprisingly large,” Kastner said. SPA notes that few institutions surveyed had the numbers readily available and many were unable to characterize the gifts in the way the survey asked, which goes to show our limited grasp of private funding levels. 

Also consider that this doesn’t include a lot of funding from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which gives about $670 million annually to research, but not usually in grants to institutions, favoring its unique model of putting investigators on its payroll.

All this is to say, private giving in the U.S. for basic research has probably reached more like a few billion a year, SPA ballparks. 

It’s dwarfed by federal funding, but important

Federal funding of research and development to academic institutions is still around $40 billion a year, so philanthropic support reported in the SPA survey is around 5 percent of that. Kastner makes it clear that the SPA doesn’t believe private sources can make up for the loss of support from government and industry. It does have an important function, though. 

“Philanthropy can be nimbler than federal agencies,” he says. “We know that philanthropic support has been transformative in many cases.” 

Kastner points out cases like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which struggled until it received funding from Bill Gates and Charles Simonyi, after which the NSF and DOE joined in. Unrestrained private donors can provide a dynamic catalyst.

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We’re also talking here about basic scientific research, which seeks fundamental understanding without applications in mind. Basic research can be high risk for funders, but lead to transformative understandings that spin off into technologies we all use daily. So it’s particularly important for private sources to take on such risks. 

But even if we know private funding can play an important role, it’s tough to strategically direct without data on what funds are going where.

The breakdown of recipients is troubling

One other big takeaway from the SPA survey is that life sciences are disproportionately funded by private philanthropy. Respondents reported more then $1 billion in funding, around half of research funding across all disciplines. Physical sciences were funded far less, at just 7 percent, and mathematics at just 2 percent. 

“I knew that fields like mathematics do not get much philanthropic support, but the contrast between different fields is more dramatic than I expected,” Kastner said. 

He does point out that government funding also favors life sciences significantly (around $30 billion to the NIH annually), but the survey on private giving still shows a stark difference between fields. 

Another dynamic that isn’t too surprising, but still pretty jarring to see in the numbers, is the fact that some institutions raise far more money than others. The survey found that half of all reported private funding for life sciences, physical sciences and mathematics went to just five institutions that participated in the study. 

There are many disclaimers to attach to this data, since it’s just the first survey. And SPA is eager to get more institutions to participate and firm up their numbers. But it goes to show that even a first crack at serious data collection on philanthropy can go a long way toward understanding where this huge amount of money is headed.