Reflexively changing decision-making processes: adopting new selection criteria and indicators of success
The third emerging, alternative approach to science philanthropy relates to the utilization of new selection criteria and indicators of research quality’ that foundations are using to select different kinds of research projects for funding. Many of these changes are coming from new philanthropic institutions interested in directing more philanthropic support toward what they view as
Novel modes of responsibility 171 high-risk, high-reward research, indicating that these institutions are reflexively looking to change how funding decisions are made within their organizations. Two such philanthropic endeavors that have been particularly involved in implementing these kinds of changes are the Open Philanthropy Project and The Audacious Project, which is based at the TED organization. These changes are also evidenced by the emergence of prize-based science philanthropy, in which funding is provided not at the outset of a research effort but only at its successful conclusion, when it has achieved its desired outcome areas.
The Open Philanthropy Project has made a particular point of looking for high-risk, high-reward research efforts to fund, particularly in the biomedical sciences. As they note on their website, the Open Philanthropy Project primarily looks “to identify scientific research that has the potential for high impact and is under-supported by other funders. We are excited to support high-risk and unconventional science when the potential impact is sufficiently large” (Open Philanthropy Project, n.d.a). Moreover, their decision-making criteria for providing funding explicitly states that the organization looks to support causes that are important, neglected, and tractable, with the second criterion explained with the commentary that, “all else equal, we prefer causes that receive less attention from others, particularly other major philanthropists” (Open Philanthropy Project, n.d.b). As one article in Science noted, these selection criteria lead the Open Philanthropy Project to fund research projects that have “high odds of failure” (Callaway, 2018, p. 10). For example, the Open Philanthropy Project has directed over S10 million toward research projects that had previously been rejected by the National Institutes of Health for being too risky but that may still hold the promise for highly impactful discoveries (Callaway, 2018). The Open Philanthropy Project has also been particularly active in supporting research that examines the societal implications of rather futuristic technologies, with a particular interest in studying what they call potentially “global catastrophic risks” from “advanced artificial intelligence” (Open Philanthropy Project, n.d.c). This emphasis has led to multiple grants to establish new research centers examining these kinds of risks to society from developments in artificial intelligence. The organization has provided support to launch the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley with an over S5 million grant in 2016 (Scutari, 2018) and the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University with an over $55 million grant in 2019 (Williams, T., 2019). The formation of both of these research centers by the Open Philanthropy Project is particularly intriguing given that they go beyond undertaking research that might enable developments in artificial intelligence. Instead, the purpose of these awards is to provide substantial resources to question, probe, and assess the ethical, policy, legal, security, and other societal dimensions that might arise due to significant advancements in artificial intelligence.
The Open Philanthropy Project is not the only philanthropic institution that has become concentrated on deliberately selecting high-risk research projectsfor support. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has also come to emphasize this kind of activity, partnering with three California based universities to create the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub program. The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub program awards a series of fellowships to top researchers in multiple fields of science and technology' explicitly for the purpose of pursuing projects that are based on “bold ideas that lack preliminary evidence” (Maxmen, 2017, p. 280). Selected winners have come from multiple academic disciplines and have included an array of biologists, engineers, and computer scientists. One of the key requirements accompanying this support provided for high-risk projects is that the award winners are required to meet and share results with one another rather often. The purpose in doing so is to encourage the cross-pollination of ideas and establish a community of scientists interested in pursuing knowledge at the frontiers and intersections of different disciplines.
Another rather new philanthropic effort aimed at advancing high-risk research is The Audacious Project, an offshoot of the well-known and popular TED speaker series. The Audacious Project states that it looks to “select ideas that are truly bold and truly actionable, with the potential to affect millions of lives” (The Audacious Project, 2019a). To do so, The Audacious Project looks bring together funding from multiple high-net-worth individuals and help direct those funds into a few large awards to a select number of potentially high impact projects, amounting to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars per project (Price, 2019). The Audacious Project has adopted a variety of alternative selection approaches aimed at identifying potentially high-risk research projects. First, it uses an open and widely publicized call for submissions to broadly source ideas, with these calls garnering well over a thousand submissions. Second, it has also adopted a rather unusual proposal review process. As an article in Science details, “reviewers for these proposals are not typically experts in the relevant fields,” and “instead, they look at a team’s record of success, the idea’s potential for large-scale global impact, its sustainability, and its ability to attract philanthropy” (Price, 2019, p. 317). Proposers whose projects are shortlisted for consideration work with a consultant to prepare a brief video to pitch ideas that could attract the interest of the assembled donors. Another article in Science describes The Audacious Project as helping to facilitate the connections between individual funders with researchers pursuing high-risk, high-reward science, explaining that, “Audacious raises money from multiple private donors and vets proposals on their behalf, which cuts paperwork for grantees” (Kin-tisch, 2018, p. 738).
While not all of the awards from The Audacious Project are made in the area of science and technology, in 2019 it funded research projects that looked to study how extensively plants could be used to better sequester carbon dioxide, whether proteins could be engineered to help develop new drugs and vaccines, how to better develop and distribute drugs for neglected diseases, and how to restructure financial debt of island nations to better protect oceans (The Audacious Project, 2019b). Similarly, one scientific project funded by The Audacious Project in 2018 is the Ocean Twilight Zone
Novel modes of responsibility 173 initiative, a six-year effort to study the region of the ocean that exists in the layer of water between the more easily observable surface and the darker depths. This research will be facilitated by the development of new sensors, cameras, and submersible vehicles to better map and observe the ocean’s “mysterious midwater layer,” a realm that has been somewhat ignored by other oceanographic research projects, in part because “traditional tools have proved inadequate for exploring midwater ecosystems” (Kintisch, 2018, p. 738). While the projects supported by The Audacious Project are likely to take a long time to produce results or come to fruition, if at all, that is the expectation of the funders going into the process and an inevitable trade-off that comes with looking to support breakthrough projects that boast a high degree of uncertainty.
Finally, another example of philanthropic funders looking to spur high-risk research in science and technology is the emergence of various challenge prizes targeted at spurring breakthrough discoveries. These inducement or innovation incentivization prizes, as they are known, have become more common in the philanthropic and government sectors, as funders look for new ways to encourage researchers to tackle exceedingly difficult scientific or technological questions (Williams, H., 2012; Ubois, 2019; National Research Council, 2007; Patel, 2013). Unlike grants that are awarded at the outset of a project, prizes and challenge awards are only paid out at the conclusion of a project and only if a research team accomplishes the pre-determined terms and requirements of the contest. These awards are generally rather large in size, in the order of many millions of dollars per prize, and thereby receive substantial attention both when the challenge is announced and when the eventual award is made. While the use of incentive prizes has been critiqued for potentially providing perverse incentives for scientists to re-direct their research in directions that may not end up being fruitful or productive (Starr, 2013), they have also been credited with stimulating high-risk research that likely would not have otherwise taken place without the promise of substantial amounts of money being conferred upon completion (Goldhammer, Mitchell, Parker, Anderson, & Joshi, 2014). Perhaps the most well-known donor organization providing prizes is the XPRIZE Foundation, which often partners with corporations or other entities to announce and award large-scale prizes to researchers. Prizes have focused on achieving a wide range of goals within science and technology, such as contests to develop autonomous vehicles in order to more comprehensively map the ocean floor (Rosen, 2018) or challenges to find economically productive ways of using carbon dioxide (Lim, 2015). Given the high-risk attributes of these challenges, it is not uncommon for prizes to be discontinued, canceled, or not awarded for a variety of reasons. These include a low number of participating teams, as was the case with a genomics sequencing prize challenge (Kaiser, 2013), or the inability of teams to accomplish the stated goals of the contest, as was the case with an attempt to develop a new generation of Moon landers (Gibney, 2019).