This summer, the Lasker Foundation joined the Science Philanthropy Alliance — a community of private funders that formed in 2015 with the mission to provide advice, learning opportunities, and inspiration to donors interested in supporting basic research. A recent milestone of this effort was the announcement in September of the $3 billion commitment to basic science research with the goal of curing all diseases made by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Basic science is often where breakthroughs occur that change paradigms and create innovative advances. This was emphasized by 2016 Lasker Basic Medical Research laureate Peter Ratcliffe, whose fundamental work in oxygen sensing ended up having implications for many types of cancer, when he said in an interview with the New York Times:

“I don’t think any of us ever thought the [HIF] system might be a ‘classical’ drug target. So it was really exciting to discover the potential consequences.”

While basic research is crucial for the scientific discovery process, deciding which projects to support can be daunting for new investors. With its rich history supporting biomedical science and the wealth of medical research knowledge supplied by the community of Lasker laureates, the Lasker Foundation aims to help private donors overcome some of these challenges.

Philanthropy has a growing role to play in supporting research, with close to 400 foundations investing in science and technology in 2012 and over 800 foundations investing in health and medicine, according to data from the Foundation Center.

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All data courtesy of the Foundation Center Stats, which includes total grants of $10,000 or more awarded by 1,000 of the top US foundations by giving. Grants to individuals are not included.

Philanthropic investment in science is not a new phenomenon. In the United States, it was private patrons who supported basic science in the mid- and late 19th century, whereas the government at the time reserved its funding for translational research of immediate value. At the start of the 20th century, there was an organizational shift that still shapes science philanthropy to this day — the emergence of professionally managed foundations such as the Carnegie Institute of Washington and the Rockefeller Foundation. By 1925, at least a dozen large foundations were sponsoring research in academia.

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The number of active foundations between 2002-2012 changed only slightly. The total number of foundations giving to health changed from 868 in 2002 to 863 in 2012. The total number of foundations giving to science and technology changed from 399 in 2002 to 384 in 2012. All data courtesy of the Foundation Center Stats.

It is challenging to provide a comprehensive measure of how much private money is going into science today, and even more so to determine what percentage of it is invested in basic medical science. A study published by The National Bureau of Economic Research looked into university-based scientific, engineering, and medical research and found that when combined with endowment income, university research funding from science philanthropy is $7 billion a year (the study did not include non-university research centers) and that about 30% of leading university research funding comes from science philanthropy (analysis was based on the top 50 US universities only). Data from the Foundation Center revealed that in 2012, grants for medical research alone amounted to nearly $1.5 billion (compared to a little over $541 million in 2002) . A recent survey of 62 universities conducted by the Science Philanthropy Alliance reported that the 27 universities that responded to the survey received $2.2 billion for basic science research in 2015.

Giving grants is not the only way by which philanthropy supports science. Some patrons create their own independent institutes like the Broad and Allen Institutes. Others, such as the Simons Foundation, lead initiatives ranging from creating their own genetic database to building better analytical tools for the research community, while still continuing to give external grants.

Philanthropies are also not limited by national borders. The Wellcome Trust, a UK-based biomedical research charity, which is one of the largest nongovernment funders of science in the United Kingdom and the world, provides funding to thousands of people in more than 70 countries. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private funder of academic biomedical research in the United States, supports international early-career scientists in 12 countries. The Pew Charitable Trust has a program that offers support for young scientists from Latin America to receive postdoctoral training in the United States.

Although no comprehensive data exist to provide a complete picture of the level and type of philanthropic giving to science, it is clear that modern philanthropy has an important role in shaping the direction of research today. To be sure, at over $140 billion per year, total federal investment in research is huge compared with that of private donors. The words of advice that Albert Lasker gave to Mary Lasker in 1944, shortly after they co-founded the Lasker Foundation with the goal to increase investment in medical research, still resonate today:

“You need a lot of money for the kind of progress that you have in mind. You cannot do that without involving the federal government.”

One concern in recent years related to federal funding for science has been that the average age of the recipients of major (R01-equivalent) US National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants has risen to 42 years, which means that many young scientists are left struggling to start their independent research careers.

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The NIH uses several funding mechanisms to support researchers. In an effort to support young scientists, the NIH created the career development program in 1957 and has awarded over 19,000 K grants since. (Note: Success rates are defined as the percentage of reviewed grant applications that receive funding. Success rates count grant application amendments each time they occur in a new fiscal year, and award rate counts each grant application just once). All data courtesy of the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools. Data shown in graphic are from 2011.

In response to this funding need, a number of private foundations have developed programs to support young scientists at the late-PhD, MD, or postdoctoral level, or during their transition from fellowship or postdoctoral training to independent scientist positions, in order to supplement the NIH Research Career Development grants for young scientists. However, in an interview for our spring newsletter, Robert Tjian, who was president of HHMI from 2009 until September of this year, pointed out that:

“No matter how big the private foundations and organizations, like the Hughes, are, we’re a tiny fraction. Unless the federal government picks up where we start, we’re never going to have the scale-up that would be necessary.”

Many hope that the rise in philanthropic giving will supplement federal investment in basic science. However, the two types of funding have different roles that are more complementary than overlapping.

The federal government is spending taxpayer money and has policies, practices, and regulations that may result in more conservative funding choices. Nevertheless, the research that led to many innovative advances like the Internet, GPS, and Google’s search engine, not to mention countless medical therapies, was sponsored with public funds. Private philanthropies, in contrast, are often described as more flexible and more willing to take risks. Investments are driven less by national priorities and more by the donors’ personal interests, curiosity, and passion. Patrons often support projects from less established fields in a start-up fashion. As the president of the Simons Foundation, Marilyn Simons, said in an interview for the Lasker Foundation (included in this newsletter edition):

“We have the flexibility to do some things that are harder for the government to do…there are some areas that the government isn’t going to fund, like origins of life, for example. It’s an area that doesn’t have immediate practicality and, in fact, might not have a long-term one, either.”

These differences can be a potent source of public-private collaborations, increasing the efficiency and scope of research investment. Understanding and supporting the priorities and challenges of private donors can help science philanthropy grow further and remain a valuable partner in supporting scientific research. The Lasker Foundation, through its membership in the Science Philanthropy Alliance, hopes to inspire more private donors to support basic research by providing them with the necessary tools and information that will put them in position to know the landscape and opportunities for investing in current biomedical research.