Issue Date: September 21, 2015
The Private Sector’s Role In Chemistry’s Future
Vannevar Bush, a former presidential science adviser, heralded a wave of deliberate public funding of research that persists today through his oft-cited report of 1945, which pressed for and resulted in the creation of the National Science Foundation. The rationale was simple and as important today as it was then. Namely, for the future of humankind and our nation, we must advance basic science and technology.
Unfortunately, this economic necessity has been increasingly commingled with politics. Basic science is necessarily long-term, and risky projects suffer in the face of immediate concerns and partisan debates, leading to effective reductions in government funding of basic research.
It is time to revise the funding model for basic science to include a larger role for private and industrial philanthropic support. There is some irony in this suggestion because it could be viewed as a return to the past. From 1939 to 1955, Bush served as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (now the Carnegie Institution of Science) and was involved in redressing gaps in the endowment’s early funding power.
Presumably, he saw the founding of NSF as part of the solution to provide more systematic and sustained funding than what may be expected from private foundations, which are beholden to the strength of their endowments and the willingness of their benefactors to increase their support. Nevertheless, both public and private sectors can successfully invest in the future of science (and chemistry in particular), playing critical roles to reduce fluctuations in the available funding from either.
The American Chemical Society already has a blueprint. The Petroleum Research Fund (PRF) has supported basic research in chemistry, albeit related to petroleum, since 1944. (The endowment was created from the proceeds of a patent initially held by Universal Oil Products Co. and granted to avoid antitrust litigation.) As a nongovernmental foundation, PRF provides funding for basic research that is free from the vagaries of politics.
But like federal agencies, it cannot fund all of the grant proposals that are above the bar without restriction. Similarly restricted, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has been filling the void in the biochemical sciences, the Simons Foundation is spearheading initiatives in mathematics, and The Kavli Foundation has concentrated its efforts on very specific interdisciplinary branches of science, such as nanoscience. These have varying overlap with the chemical sciences and complement foundations such as the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), which have also funded our field.
Throw in university endowments, and the result is a fragile web of support for basic science. The open question is whether this is enough to temper the reductions in the effective buying power of the U.S. government’s investment in science. In my experience as a researcher, the answer is that much more funding is needed both to train the next generation of scientists and to advance science to solve today’s grand challenges.
Thus this is a cry for help to anyone willing to invest in the future of science. But I also want to recognize that private foundations are not sitting idle and in many ways are leading the charge. For example, the Science Philanthropy Alliance is a consortium of foundations “committed to creating a community of funders of fundamental research and to increasing private investment in fundamental research by an additional $1 billion annually within five years,” according to the alliance. The Giving Pledge, kick-started by Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, and others, holds promise for substantial capital to be invested in ways similar to that of Carnegie, Dreyfus, Sloan, and others in the past century. Our responsibility is to help this new wave of donors see the importance of investing in science.
I was lucky to participate in an example of such collaboration between foundations. In March, I served as a facilitator in the Scialog 2015 conference, hosted in partnership by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation and RCSA. The topic was “Molecules Come to Life,” and it aimed to address the grand challenge of understanding the structure and behavior of living organisms at every length scale from angstroms on up. It also led to $731,000 in funding for collaborative projects that emerged from the discussions in the workshop. That is basic research that would not have been supported if not for senior scientists providing a vision for scientific problems articulated in a way that private donors could appreciate. A second Scialog will be held on this topic in 2016, so the story is not yet over.
Our marching orders should be clear: As chemists, we have the responsibility to not only undertake breakthrough science, but also engage with the public and private sector to ensure that they will invest in our students and colleagues to make tomorrow’s breakthroughs today.
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