Discovery, Innovation, and Science Funding

Sunday, 16 February 2014
Acapulco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Susan M. Fitzpatrick , James S. McDonnell Foundation, St. Louis, MO

What role do funders play in shaping our conceptions of the relations between discovery and innovation, and how do they shape the practice of science and the character of scientists? This presentation explores how to create an environment that fosters innovative discovery, focusing specifically on the role private foundations have historically and most effectively played in supported discovery and perhaps innovation via the ‘informal college’. 

 An attempt to analyze how private foundations support fosters American science and technology must begin with an historical perspective.  The transition from the 19th to the 20th century witnessed the development of two institutions that in many ways are uniquely American: the privately endowed foundation and the research university.    This new tradition of organized giving was distinct from the tradition of personal charity or “almsgiving”.  Instead, foundations with large established endowments were to supply venture capital for the common good.  Carnegie targeted his giving toward “…institutions connected with alleviation of human suffering, and especially with the prevention rather than the cure of human ills”.  Rockefeller, guided by his philanthropic advisor Frederick Gates, found himself “laying aside retail giving almost wholly, and entering safely and pleasurably into the field of wholesale philanthropy.”   

National science policy, even when concentrating on basic research, sets funding priorities in response to national interests.  Such policies inevitably result in underfunded areas of research, creating opportunities for private foundations.  One such opportunity presented itself in 1988, when the United States Department of Health and Human services issued a moratorium on the use of federal funds for research evaluating fetal cell transplantation as a potential treatment for Parkinson’ Disease.  Private dollars funded the continuation of the research, including studies contributing to a deeper understanding of the political and ethical issues relevant to the moratorium. Foundation dollars can also be pivotal during the start-up phase of novel, emerging, and cross-disciplinary research programs which have not yet captured the attention of federal funding agencies.  Rockefeller Foundation support was crucial to the development of modern molecular biology.  The Sloan Foundation catalyzed the emergence of neuroscience and cognitive science and the McDonnell Foundation supported the development of cognitive neuroscience as distinct academic disciplines.  The Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust’s interest in developmental biology helped revitalize this field by encouraging researchers to apply advances from cellular and molecular biology.  History indicates that foundations are often most effective when awarding short- to intermediate-term transitional support for new areas of research where relatively small grants can help launch new research initiatives.