Recommendations for the path ahead: embracing complexity, addressing global challenges, and recognizing the value of a long time horizon

This chapter has assessed the views from scholars, practitioners, and observers of the science philanthropy community about how to address a number of important considerations when it comes to advancing various dimensions of societal responsibility of research and innovation. To summarize, respondents discussed the need to establish a new culture of science philanthropy, emphasized the importance of broadly scanning for ideas, expressed the importance of operating in a more flexible and risk-taking manner, called for a willingness to examine new domains and fields of study, and signified the centrality of learning and devoting resources to collaborative funding partnerships. Furthermore, interviewees communicated their hopes, expectations, and recommendations about what science philanthropies can do as interest grows in paying more attention to matters of societal responsibility'.

So, what has been learned from this critical assessment of these views? To start, there was a strong sense that philanthropic funders of science and innovation can do even more to support efforts that take a more integrative, systems-level view of the fields in which they are involved. One philanthropy representative called on these institutions to more fully embrace, and work to address, the complexity of the challenges they wish to solve. This individual offered, “I think the issue is, when we look at foundations and philanthropy much more generally, motivations are quite different in some areas. Whether or not we truly understand how the whole system works is an interesting question in its own right.” This interviewee reflected on their own institution’s continual push in this direction. “One of the things we try and do is we try and push broader issues in relation to how the system’s structured,” they said. When it comes to training doctoral students, for instance, this individual recommended looking beyond narrow indicators or metrics of success. “It is not just about the excellent science of the programs... we are trying to change the culture and the way in which training is delivered, structured, so that it is looking at the individual. It is looking at where that individual might end up in the system.”

I argue that foundation leaders should continue to devote substantial energy to infusing their organizations with this societally oriented mindset, with many interviewees marking this idea as critically important as well. Foundation staff and leaders need to remain sensitized both to the needs of the research community and to the ongoing necessity of better connecting the results of basic scientific research to society at large. Asked how these linkages could be bolstered more intentionally, one researcher expressed that the more the societal relevance of science and technology is considered to be part of the core mission of science philanthropies, the better these institutions will be positioned to fund research, training, and other activities that makes these relationships more apparent and more central. Another researcher encouraged these decisionmakers to set targets or benchmarks for how much of their grantmaking resources would go toward ensuring that their research has a greater impact on society. To underline the importance of this point, this scholar even alluded to a biblical reference about how much of one’s resources should be donated for charitable purposes. This individual recommended to foundation leaders to “tithe your research portfolio to getting your research into society,” encouraging funders to be more unambiguous in drawing the connections between basic science and its application toward tackling societal challenges.

A second suggestion that arose from these conversations was that science philanthropies can and should do more to fund research that is deliberately aimed at answering pressing global questions. One funder representative counseled that, “the hope is that fundamental science is going to then bear on these big challenges.” This interviewee raised a set of such questions in need of more research, areas where science philanthropy help can contribute in providing suitable answers: “How do you prevent nuclear war? How do you get resources distributed? How do you deal with epidemics, pandemics, and so on?” This person recommended that even when funding basic research, more science philanthropies should operate with the need for these end-result societal impacts in mind. “I guess my fundamental belief is that the foundations that support science should be thinking about how what they are doing can have an impact on that biggest picture,” advised this interviewee.

A third recommendation that arose from these conversations was that science philanthropies have a unique ability to connect short- and long-term time horizons when it comes to assessing the impact of their work. There was a two-fold rationale for this conclusion. As noted in the introductory chapter, foundations have a rather distinct ability to support research that aims at multiple time horizons, exactly because of the freedom they have to operate. This becomes doubly true for philanthropies focused on supporting science and technology, because the results of basic research also often take a long time to turn into new innovations that are broadly diffused. One science philanthropy staff member endorsed this idea by indicating that, “basic science has a time horizon that requires patience, and it is really hard for many people to wait that long.” They summarized this notion by surmising that, “you get some really fantastic, big things from those investments. They just can’t tell you what they are. Nobody can. Not even scientists can tell you what the outcomes are going to be, but they can be truly game changing, and will radically change what happens everywhere else.”

Other funders and researchers voiced similar observations about the importance of marrying the near-term with the long-term, especially given the uncertainty associated with how scientific research progresses. This is partly why a number of researchers postulated the importance of science philanthropies allowing for a high degree of flexibility when it comes to supporting research, as there is the potential for unexpected, serendipitous discoveries to become ever-more important in future years. One foundation representative described the need for foresight and the importance of making early stage investments in basic research given long payoff times. “There have to be some things where investing now for a future, uncertain benefit is a thing that happens. Surely there must be opportunities to do that,” they said. Another researcher expressed a similar sentiment, postulating that, “answers are going to come from research that you never thought was applicable in the first place, but 30 years down the road it turned out to be applicable.” I would argue that while there are tensions between funding research that aims to have a more immediate societal impact and work where such societal relevance is farther out in the future, science philanthropies are exactly the kinds of institutions that are well placed to mediate among these dual goals. On this front, one interviewee hypothesized that, “we need...a little more tolerance for uncertainty, that we don’t know quite how it is going to benefit, but we have faith that the general process of human discovery.”

In conclusion, even though science philanthropies operate in diverse ways across many dimensions, interviews with some of the leading thinkers and practitioners on this subject indicate that there is a surprising amount of agreement surrounding the common challenges that these institutions are working to address and what steps are needed to help move the field of science philanthropy forward. While consensus in thinking is never to be expected, the reverberation of similar sentiments from those operating in different roles and in different institutions is telling. These commonalities indicate that it is possible to achieve a shared understanding of the role of science philanthropy in society, even if each institution continues to operate in slightly different ways.

I would be remiss by not ending with my own take on the collective set of interviews. I was particularly heartened by the sheer number of individuals who feel compelled to make the world better as part of their daily job and who expressed their dedication and enthusiasm for improving how science philanthropy operates. Moreover, these discussions also indicate that individuals are facing the uncertainties ahead with introspection, an impressive degree of nuance in thinking, and a commitment to achieve both the goals of their particular institution and science philanthropy in general. Given that the field is not static, though, I anticipate that these views will continue to evolve as well, especially as the modalities of science philanthropy transform in the years ahead as new practices are adopted, as new institutions are formed, and as new ways of working are employed. One researcher was so galvanized by the prospects about the next stages of development for science philanthropy that they envisioned a promising “new horizon” ahead.

The next two chapters will examine elements of this “new horizon” in more detail and consider some of the ways that the field as a whole may change in the coming years. This will be done by examining alternative approaches to science philanthropy in Chapter 7 and then, in Chapter 8, conclude with a presentation of a series of imaginative, forward-looking scenarios about the future of science philanthropy.

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