When it comes to funding for science, the conventional wisdom has traditionally gone something like this: government agencies support large-scale research along well-defined scientific pathways, while smaller but more nimble philanthropic funding fuels early-stage and advanced research. dangerous.
But a recent, larger-than-ever analysis aimed at generating a better understanding of scientific philanthropy suggests that this narrative may no longer be accurate, if it ever was. In a new study powered by all forms of electronic taxation, a team of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have found that philanthropic funding for science may be far more essential than previously thought. In fact, adding up to about $30 billion a year, it could be on par with major segments of government funding.
We took a look at the research paper, “Mapping Philanthropic Support of Science,” currently in preprint and spoke with the lead author to get an overview of the team’s most important findings and what they might mean for scientific philanthropy. Beyond the dollar amount, the study also illuminated other apparent patterns within science philanthropy that can provide useful insights for everyone involved—funders, grant seekers, even policymakers.
To reach their conclusions, the research team analyzed more than 3.6 million machine-readable IRS 990 tax forms for the decade between 2010 and 2019 from nearly 700,000 nonprofit organizations. They focused on information on more than 10 million grants made by foundations and other nonprofits, ultimately identifying about 70,000 science funders. By the later years of the decade, philanthropic funding was reaching about $30 billion a year—exceeding the annual funding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and rivaling that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We have known for some time that the relative amount of federal science funding has been declining relative to that of private funding, including corporate support for applied science. But this study shows that the vital role of philanthropy as a source of science dollars—including basic research—is hard to underestimate.
While the details of federal funding are publicly available, philanthropic giving — which comes from thousands and thousands of funders — is not as easily quantified, said Louis Shekhtman, the paper’s lead author. But Shekhtman said the trove of computerized data inside IRS tax forms could provide far more detailed data about philanthropic giving to science — and any other major philanthropic cause, for that matter.
“What we’re seeing is that the way philanthropists fund science is not the way governments fund science, and not the way scientists generally think science is funded,” Shekhtman said.
For example, one of the team’s key findings had to do with where the money goes. Most US funders – including major science philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation – direct a disproportionate share of their science grants to destinations in their home states. The Gates Foundation, for example, gives 10 times more money to scientific institutions in Washington state than would be expected based on a random geographic pattern, according to the study.
It is not surprising and understandable that funders tend to place additional emphasis on their home communities. “We all understand why you’re supporting, say, a local art museum or other local institution instead of one far away,” Shekhtman said. “But science is national, international, great cooperation. We definitely want to raise the question: Is this [regional bias] the best way to fund science? There are pros and cons to that, but that’s the way it’s currently done.” It’s a question worth asking.
Another key finding from the study was the relative stability—one might say entrenchment—of scientific philanthropy. Compared to government grants that usually come with a time limit, philanthropic funders tend to support the same researchers year after year. This has potentially favorable and unfavorable implications.
On the one hand, some worthwhile scientific research simply takes many years and requires stable and reliable sources of funding. Science program officers in philanthropy often talk about their long partnerships with particular institutions and even particular scientists, citing their strategy of investing in people, not research. And it has proven successful: scientists supported by philanthropy have made major breakthroughs and received Nobel Prizes. On the other hand, it’s equally possible that a long-term funding relationship could hinder someone else’s more deserving research and absorb funding that could be better applied elsewhere. There’s no single answer to the question, but again, it’s a question funders need to ask.
The study had several important limitations. For example, not every philanthropic donor used the electronic tax forms that the researchers scraped, so those grants simply weren’t counted. The Northeast team also did not include grants from any government agencies that might be said to fund science, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. So the dollar amounts are not all-inclusive and can probably never be added up exactly.
Shekhtman is the first to admit that the study is not the last word in trying to fully understand the magnitude and nature of scientific philanthropy. It’s more of a starting point – an attempt to more accurately determine the overall level of giving and where it’s going. With a clearer and more accurate picture, Shekhtman said, everyone involved can make better decisions to run the system more productively, including funders, policymakers and of course, the scientists themselves.
Although this study focused specifically on scientific philanthropy, it underscores how much we still don’t know about nonprofit funding in general. Whether this is due to deliberate vagueness, or more often simply because there are so many philanthropic funders out there (and relatively few demands for transparency and disclosure), it’s difficult even for those of us looking at the field to get accurate information. and updated quantitative understanding of where grant dollars flow in science and elsewhere.
With that in mind, the Northeastern team’s study can be a starting point, but it can ask and answer questions philanthropy needs to ask itself about supporting science—and help researchers seek grants effectively. more efficient. For example, Shekhtman said, scientists accustomed to the traditional grant-writing and peer-review process used by government agencies might do well to engage more directly with philanthropy, building relationships with individual donors or foundation program officers. With closer connections, researchers can more effectively convey the importance of work that might otherwise be unclear to non-experts in the field.
“There’s so much money floating around here, let’s first understand how it’s moving,” Shekhtman said. “I think it’s hard to answer questions about what is a better policy or what is a worse policy until we have the data.”