05/20/2013 04:30 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

A Private Sector Initiative to Bolster U.S. Science

President Obama, in a speech to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences just a few weeks ago, spoke about the importance and positive added value of science to the nation. He correctly noted that science is a key to U.S. economic growth. Outcomes of scientific research provide the base for innovations that are responsible for roughly one-half of productivity gains measured every year by economists. The annual investment from federal agencies in the U.S. in both science, and the development of scientists, is roughly $30-35 billion.

Indeed, this is a lot of money. But the distribution of these resources is often such that it leaves much of the seed corn of science, young scientists, lacking the support they need not just to undertake their research, but also to advance their careers. And, without support, the innovative and potentially transformative ideas from this future generation of scientists fall by the wayside. At a recent national meeting supported by the American Association for the Advancement for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Robert Conn, president of the prestigious, California-based Kavli Foundation, remarked that the struggle of young scientists is not a new situation. Conn noted that Albert Einstein, for example, following the publication of his landmark studies in 1905, went three years before he found a permanent job. He also reminded us, however, that while the U.S. university system ultimately sheltered Einstein before World War II, today's innovators and scientific explorers might not fare as well. Why? The culprit is the flattening of federal science funding that has occurred in recent years and the difficult issues involved in the fair and equitable dissemination of those dollars.

For example, the reduced amount of federal research dollars is compounded by the fact that the significant majority of grant awards made established labs run by senior researchers as opposed to individuals at earlier stages of their careers (about 7 percent of the awards go to researchers 65 years or older while only about 3 percent go to scientists younger than 36). The challenge to support more scientists at diverse career stages (including graduate students and postdoctoral fellows -- two groups that provide the lifeblood for future science discoveries) will deepen, according to the AAAS, with estimates that there will be a reduction of an additional $54 billion out of federal science research funding over the next five years.

In reaction to this diminished funding, and potential reduction in the science workforce, a new coalition of private science foundations that fund science has recently been announced. This coalition includes the Kavli Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the W.M Keck Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. These organizations have jointly pledged to lead a drive to double philanthropic foundation donations to $4 billion annually, concomitant with a similar doubling by wealthy donors for an additional $4 billion a year, in the next 10 to 15 years.

Contributions from wealthy donors for an imitative such as proposed here is not a very big stretch. First, and foremost, all of the foundations in this consortium were founded by the vision, commitment, and wealth of just such individuals, and therefore provide remarkably successful models of how private dollars can catalyze science. Warren Buffet made the news not long ago with a $31 billion gift to the Gates Foundation -- not just because he was friends with Bill and Melinda Gates, but because he believed in the mission of the foundation. Thus, Mr. Buffett's decision was important not so much that he was giving his wealth away, but that he was asking someone else to pursue philanthropy on his behalf, in a structured and organized manner, for a cause in which he believed. This is not unexpected and not necessarily unique. More recently, for example, The Giving Pledge community formed. This constituted a commitment by the world's wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. It has evolved with well more than 400 individuals signing the pledge. While not all of these philanthropists see science research and/or education as their main interest, scientific advancement for the betterment of our understanding of complex problems such as climate change, microorganisms that can affect human health with pandemic potential and the delicate balance between GMO's and feeding the world, is at the forefront of interest for many.

More important than just the money, however, is that private-sector foundations can afford to fund more high-risk, high-return research (which often comes from the genius of scientists early in their career) without the badgering and bickering that too often comes from Congress as well as a sometimes constipated and overly cumbersome conservative peer-review mechanism when tax dollars are at stake. They can follow the advice of Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi, who once said that an experiment with an 80 percent chance of working as predicted is hardly worth doing. He noted that " should try something you don't know will work. We need someone to support the wildest and most creative ideas. We can't tell you which ones will change the world, but we know one of them will."

There are select innovation awards, and monies targeted to early-career scientists, available in the NSF and NIH that, though relatively few, are important and need to be retained and expanded. And certainly the Department of Defense DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the Department of Energy ARPAe (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) initiatives are effective and critically important efforts to promote and fund innovation. But more is needed, and the private sector can go a long way to meet, complement, and enhance those efforts.

Bold examples of what private dollars can do to support the vision of Fermi include the Kavli Institutes, which are embedded in universities around the nation, and dedicated private research endeavors such as Janelia Farm, built on a site outside of Washington, D.C., and supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, MI. Not only do such institutes and investments provide space and resources for higher risk, innovative research, they provide a much-longer research and planning horizon than embraced by most federal agencies. And, as evidenced by the recently launched Brain mapping initiative, public/private partnerships can come into play such that federal agencies and private foundations (and businesses) can join forces to drive major initiatives that will significantly benefit humankind.

What the foundation consortium is building, in my opinion, is a much-needed, aggressive and innovative venture philanthropic approach to the funding of science. It takes concepts and techniques from venture capital finance and high technology business management and applies them to achieving philanthropic goals. It is characterized by: a willingness to experiment and "try new approaches"; focus on measurable results; the readiness and latitude to shift funds between organizations and goals, or between programs within a given foundation or "cluster" of foundations. To do so it must be based on tracking measurable results; giving intellectual, infrastructural (when needed) and human capital as well as financial support; funding on a multi-year basis; a focus on capacity building, instead of isolated programs or general operating expenses; and a unique high, collaborative involvement by foundations and donors with their grantees.

The collaboration, partnering, and philanthropic outreach evidenced by this group of foundations, and its catalytic impact on federal dollars, is going to pay huge dividends in the future not just to the cause of science itself, and the budding careers of the next generation of scientists, but importantly to the benefit and continued science and technology leadership of our nation. As the former president of a private science foundation, as an academic dean committed to helping all academic researchers (and their students) succeed in their careers, and as a research scientist, I am thankful for, and praise, the vision and leadership exhibited by this consortium.