No other country in the world equals the U.S.’s level of private support of science, and it is a unique ingredient of American success. There are no comprehensive numbers quantifying philanthropic support of science and medical research, because the participation of individuals and foundations is so broad. In 1997, large foundations reported $427 million in support for science, and $253 million for medical research. But these numbers are conservative, since some giving to higher education clearly goes to support of scientific research but is misclassified as educational support.
Americans gave some $18.4 billion to their colleges and universities in 1998, of which a considerable portion sustained the research enterprise. Donations to higher education varied greatly, from the $1 million gift of John and Ann Clendenin to Kennesaw State University to expand the College of Science and Mathematics, to the $1 million grant by Larry and Ralph Cimmarusti to Glendale Community College in California for the NASA/JPL Science Education Center.
The trend lines for private support of science have been broadly positive. Nevertheless, it has not been consistently distributed. Like every other field, science has its fashions. Just as Sputnik and the race to the moon inspired support for astronautical research, so the emergence of AIDS and the race to map the genome have inspired biomedical research support to reach new frontiers.
The W. M. Keck Foundation recently gave $50 million to establish a graduate school for bioengineering and life sciences. The Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation provided more than $70 million to establish the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Fund. The University of Pennsylvania received $100 million from Leonard and Madlyn Abramson to support cancer research.
In aggregate, it has been estimated by Science magazine that 5 percent of the grant volume from the nation’s private foundations goes to science and engineering. For large foundations, the number is generally higher, between 6 and 9 percent. In terms of recipients, most private support for science goes to universities.
Nevertheless, the interest among foundations in science and engineering is quite concentrated. According to a survey of the 8,000 foundations in the Foundation Directory, only 300 indicated that science and engineering were among their primary interests.
Given normal rates of turnover in philanthropic focus, such a small number is naturally of concern to the science community, and the emergence of new philanthropic players from the information technology and computer industries has raised hopes that the science grantmaking community will expand and take on greater diversity.