Before World War II, philanthropy was a major supporter of both higher education and scientific research in the United States, and support from the federal government for both was relatively small, observed Conn. Much of this philanthropic support came from industrialists who had become wealthy during America’s industrial age, which was the first time in the history of the country that individuals made large fortunes.
Ironically, philanthropy was not a major feature of Science, the Endless Frontier, even though Bush was president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. This was partly because, in his experience, only the federal government could now support research at the scale that World War II had shown was necessary. As federal research dollars flowed to rapidly growing U.S. colleges and universities, the result “was a tectonic change” in higher education, said Conn. Many public universities grew dramatically, while federal support for research strengthened public and private institutions alike. Today, the United States has the greatest collection of colleges and universities anywhere in the world, which constitutes “a distinctive American advantage,” Conn added.
As U.S. science and technology came to dominate the world, philanthropic organizations reduced their support of science, believing that the federal government was better suited to fund scientific research. But that also has been changing in recent years, Conn observed. In the past few decades, developments in technology and in the structuring of new and growing businesses have again been creating large individual fortunes. As a result, private philanthropic giving to scientific research has been increasing as wealthy entrepreneurs turn from their businesses to broader social concerns. In addition, universities have been funding research from their own endowments
that themselves are the result of “legacy philanthropy,” Conn noted, and the states have been funding research in colleges and universities. The result is a more balanced system of support for science in which different funders bring different strengths and emphases to the research enterprise.
“Nobody has this collection of assets,” and “utilizing these assets going forward is both our challenge and our opportunity.”
—Robert Conn, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Kavli Foundation
Together, these sources of support have reinforced research and higher education as a great “cultural strength of the United States,” said Conn. “Nobody has this collection of assets,” and “utilizing these assets going forward is both our challenge and our opportunity.”
In addressing the fundamental aspects of the relationships among science, higher education, and government, Science, the Endless Frontier established a framework for thinking about both the public and private sectors, including philanthropy. “Vannevar Bush didn’t think small,” said Conn. “He thought big, and he thought long term. That’s what we need to do.”
Where Philanthropies Thrive
As Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said, government can make much larger investments in science than can all of the philanthropies combined. But philanthropies can do things that, for various reasons, government cannot do.
First, philanthropies can have a higher tolerance for risk, whereas government may have to opt for less risky options. However, a tolerance for risk is “a tolerance for actual failure,” Falk reminded the group. The boards of philanthropies “often love risky things that are guaranteed to succeed.”
Second, some research areas are harder for governments to support, like interdisciplinary subjects where no one government agency has responsibility for a field. Similarly, emerging fields with disproportionate numbers of young,
early-career scientists can be overlooked by government despite their promise.
Third, philanthropies are well suited to support activities that contribute to cultural change. An example is the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s determination to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in every grant by asking people to describe who will be participating in a proposed activity. In this and other ways, the foundation can “seize opportunities to do certain things that only we are in a position to do,” said Falk.
Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, also made this point about the potential of philanthropies to drive cultural change. For example, her organization, with support from the Rita Allen Foundation, has been able to provide grants to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for work in communities designed specifically to serve the public interest. Furthermore, Research!America has been able to reach out to underserved universities and states with less developed research infrastructures and ecosystems, enabling them to build capacity. “Our obligation going forward with all the components of the scientific enterprise is to think about how we’re connected to the broad public, how we reflect and serve it.”
However, in their support for programs, philanthropies have to resist the urge to fund only those ideas that reflect the interests and priorities of philanthropists, Falk warned. “We’re very aware at the foundation of that danger. We counter that by making our choices in deep collaboration with the fields and the communities that we are trying to serve.”
Philanthropies as Catalysts of Change
Eric Isaacs, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, said that the high-risk funding available from philanthropies is like venture capital for science. Philanthropies can invest in research that may not be mainstream but has the potential to produce large benefits. They are agile and can switch directions or take up a new form of research quickly. They can enable early-career scientists to take paths that other people have not undertaken, allowing researchers to pursue “unconventional, sometimes potentially revolutionary ideas.” They can be more patient than other institutions, providing support for many years and allowing a researcher to follow his or her passion. “Being able to do nothing but your research is a fantastic privilege,” said Isaacs.
Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, also pointed to areas where philanthropies can compensate for failures in the traditional funding model. They can fund infrastructure development that the federal government cannot support, such as
“There are great opportunities to go from sponsorship philanthropy [to partnerships] on research projects of mutual interest.”
—Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselear Polytechnic Institute
particular technologies or instruments. They can support areas of research that fall outside the missions of federal agencies. Corporate foundations can fund applied research that is foundational to the interests of the private sector.
Philanthropies can also be part of partnerships between universities and companies, Jackson observed. Such partnerships have to be carefully structured, with oversight of conflicts of interest and intellectual property issues. But there is an important role for what Jackson termed “partnership philanthropy” that supports and encourages partnerships between disparate organizations. “There are great opportunities to go from sponsorship philanthropy [to partnerships] on research projects of mutual interest.”