Do you know someone who died of a disease that the world later learned to prevent? How many things have been discovered or invented in the last decade that you wish had been around when you were a child? What would you do to accelerate the benefits of science so that generations would not have to wait for knowledge that could transform their lives? Such questions have been asked since man began his quest to understand the world.
Science was described as “the endless frontier” by World War II science czar Vannevar Bush in 1945, and it remains every bit as endless today. With each new major advance in physics, medicine, engineering, biology, and many other fields, the potential grows for fresh discoveries that lead to an improvement in our standard of living. At the same time, each discovery leads to more questions, so we are always seeking more knowledge.
One can thus sympathize with the plight of the donor or foundation head who asks “How much is enough?” As it turns out, “enough” is not a word that easily trips off the tongue of scientists who care deeply about a given field, or who are deeply engaged in a particular scientific quest.
And donors have differing views about what constitutes “enough.” Mutual fund magnates James and Virginia Stowers of Kansas City, Missouri, gave $340 million to establish a new institute for medical research, along with plans to endow it with their billion-dollar fortune upon their death. At the other end of the scale, who has not been approached (multiple times) by the American Cancer Society for a small contribution toward the cure for cancer? What university has not beseeched its alumni to build a new set of laboratories for ever-more-expensive basic science departments?
A more pressing question for the non-scientist is how to judge the quality of grant requests in fields so specialized that only a handful of researchers even understand the science involved.
A first step for many donors is to reorder the way in which they think of science. Several years ago, Princeton professor Donald Stokes proposed a model for doing just that—Louis Pasteur’s “quadrant.” The quadrant divides the world of research into four related areas in a two-by-two matrix. The matrix distinguishes between basic science and applied science, while a second division captures the distinction between goal-oriented research and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
For Stokes, the matrix’s key quadrant is the same one where Pasteur did most of his work—basic research that is aimed at solving some defined human problem. Applied research, on the other hand, is the application of knowledge to clearly specified problems, and is more straightforward to some donors because it has a clear target and appears to be less risky. Donors can monitor progress more easily by tracking milestones, and they can hold researchers accountable against targets set in advance.
A rough division of labor has applied in support of science in the post-war era. Most of the nation’s basic research is funded from the government pool, with the majority carried out in universities. At the same time, the private sector—including private foundations—has assumed a major responsibility with regard to civilian applied research and the long-term support of America’s research capacity. American companies support research and development (broadly defined) even more generously than does government, to the tune of about $157 billion per year.
Private philanthropy contributes less money but has been critical in sustaining the research enterprise, especially in universities and independent research institutes, since government funding cannot always cover the long-term cost of training and maintaining world-class scientists in stable institutions. Foundations and individual donors have for years been stepping in to build and sustain that capacity, and show every sign of continuing to do so. Neither industry nor government support of science would be as effective without the input of private philanthropic dollars to help bridge the gaps between those research tasks meeting the needs of government and those meeting the needs of private companies.
Philanthropy and Science—Four Myths
For all the allure of science funding, it is a field in which donors are often reluctant to give. This reluctance is traceable in large part to four common misperceptions:
Myth #1. Support for science means developing technology to solve human problems. The common grouping of “science and technology” misleads donors into thinking that the two are one and the same, and is a major source of frustration to both donor and recipient. Science requires long-term support to generate knowledge, and rarely produces tangible solutions to a problem. Technological solutions, by contrast, feed off of new scientific knowledge and apply it to real-world problems. It is possible to specify the outcome of a technology funding project, such as a vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. It is often not possible to specify the outcome of a project, except to learn all the lessons possible from a given inquiry. Thus, the search for a new chemical element may have no immediate applications, but may over time yield entirely new materials that in turn allow new developments in technology. This has been the case in the biomedical fields, where advances in knowledge of cell function over the last 30 years had little immediate effect, but are now being applied to extraordinary improvements in health care.
Myth #2. Your funding will be wasted unless you keep it focused. Much of the funding for science comes from personal encounters with specific problems—donors with an industry background may come to realize how important it is to solve certain scientific problems to maintain growth in particular sectors of our economy. More commonly, an individual encounters some deadly disease and wishes to do something about it. While such motivations are understandable, and while focusing one’s financial support makes sense if all the scientific tools already exist, such focus can be counterproductive for scientific problems that still require breakthroughs in basic understanding. Solutions to scientific challenges may not come from within fields as currently defined. For instance, the National Institutes of Health has found that they need to hire physicists and other non-biomedical scientists in order to achieve truly innovative discoveries.
Myth #3. All you need to manage a foundation program for science is a smart Ph.D. with a clear sense of direction. In all but the largest foundations, support for science is typically guided by a strong-minded advocate of developing a particular technology or solving a particular problem. Yet the lesson from larger science programs—both foundations and elsewhere—is that such an approach is risky. The prevailing practice in reviewing science projects is to engage in peer review, or, as recently recast by the National Academy of Sciences, expert review. A donor who wants to follow the tenets of expert review would have all science proposals reviewed by a committee composed of people who can judge the quality of the research, the relevance of the proposed research to the mission of the organization asked to fund it, and the extent to which the research is at the cutting edge of the field. It is unwise to rely on one individual—however intelligent and persuasive—to have all these perspectives.
Myth #4. There is a limited number of good research ideas out there to support, so don’t let others know what you plan to fund. There are many positive examples of collaboration among donors who jointly review proposed research in a particular area, convene common evaluation panels, and still make separate decisions on funding. In addition, given the need to take risks for major rewards in funding research, it only makes sense to consult those more knowledgeable about a particular scientific endeavor.
The field of science is vast, and there is no single approach to successful sponsorship of research. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be drawn from centuries of philanthropic support of science. These lessons are specific to the kind of goals, scale of resources, and state of the field to be funded, but at the core what we have learned is that donors can minimize mistakes in funding science through collaboration, communication, frequent evaluation, and leveraging. One final piece of advice: figure out in advance how much funding is “enough.” You will get no help in this area from prospective grantees.
Richard E. Bissell is executive director of the Policy Division at the National Research Council.