Science Philanthropy and Societal Responsibility: A Match Made for the 21st Century


Blog by Evan S. Michelson: “The overlapping crises the world has experienced in 2020 make clear that resources from multiple sectors — government, private sector, and philanthropy — need to be deployed at multiple scales to better address societal challenges. In particular, science philanthropy has stepped up, helping to advance COVID-19 vaccine developmentidentify solutions to climate change, and make the tools of scientific inquiry more widely available.

As I write in my recently published book, Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology (Routledge, 2020), this linkage between science philanthropy and societal responsibility is one that needs to be continually strengthened and advanced as global challenges become more intertwined and as the relationship between science and society becomes more complex. In fact, science philanthropies have an important, yet often overlooked, role in raising the profile of the societal responsibility of research. One way to better understand the role science philanthropies can and should play in society is to draw on the responsible research and innovation (RRI) framework, a concept developed by scholars from fields such as science & technology policy and science & technology studies. Depending on its configuration, the RRI framework has roughly three core dimensions: anticipatory research that is forward-looking and in search of new discoveries, deliberative and inclusive approaches that better engage and integrate members of the public with the research process, and the adoption of reflexive and responsive dispositions by funders (along with those conducting research) to ensure that societal and public values are accounted for and integrated at the outset of a research effort.

Philanthropies that fund research can more explicitly consider this perspective — even just a little bit — when making their funding decisions, thereby helping to better infuse whatever support they provide for individuals, institutions, and networks with attention to broader societal concerns. For instance, doing so not only highlights the need for science philanthropies to identify and support high-quality early career researchers who are pursuing new avenues of science and technology research, but it also raises considerations of diversity, equity, and inclusion as equally important decision-making criteria for funding. The RRI framework also suggests that foundations working in science and technology should not only help to bring together networks of individual scholars and their host institutions, but that the horizon of such collaborations should be actively extended to include practitioners, decision-makers, users, and communities affected by such investigations. Philanthropies can take a further step and reflexively apply these perspectives to how they operate, how they set their strategies and grantmaking priorities, or even in how they directly manage scientific research infrastructure, which some philanthropic institutions have even begun to do within their own institutions….(More)”.

If data is 21st century oil, could foundations be the right owners?


Felix Oldenburg at Alliance: “What are the best investments for a foundation? This important question is one many foundation professionals are revisiting in light of low interest rates, high market volatility, and fears of deep economic trouble ahead. While stories of success certainly exist and are worth learning from, even the notorious lack of data cannot obscure the inconvenient truth that the idea of traditional endowments is in trouble.

I would argue that in order to unleash the potential of foundations, we should turn the question around, perhaps back on its feet: For which assets are foundations the best owners?

In the still dawning digital age, one fascinating answer may stare you right in the face as you read this. How much is your personal data worth? Your social media information, search and purchase history, they are the source of much of the market value of the fastest growing sector of our time. A rough estimate of market valuation of the major social platforms divided by their active users arrives at more than $1,000 USD per user, not differentiating by location or other factors. This sum is more than the median per capita wealth in about half the world’s countries. And if the trend continues, this value may continue to grow – and with it the big question of how to put one of the most valuable resource of our time to use for the good of all.

Acting as guardians of digital commons, data-endowed foundations could negotiate conditions for the commercial use of its assets, and invest the income to create equal digital opportunities, power 21st century education, and fight climate change.

Foundation ownership in the data sector may sound like a wild idea at first. Yet foundations and their predecessors have played the role of purpose-driven owners of critical assets and infrastructures throughout history. Monasteries (called ‘Stifte’ in German, the root of the German word for foundations) have protected knowledge and education in libraries, and secured health care in hospitals. Trusts have created affordable much of the social housing in the exploding cities of the 19th century. The German Marshall Plan created an endowment for economic recovery that is still in existence today.

The proposition is simple: Independent ownership for the good of all, beyond the commercial or national interests of individual corporations of governments, in perpetuity. Acting as guardians of digital commons, data-endowed foundations could negotiate conditions for the commercial use of its assets, and invest the income to create equal digital opportunities, power 21st century education, and fight climate change. An ideal model of ownership would also include a form of governance exercised by the users themselves through digital participation and elections. A foundation really only relies on one thing, a stable frame of rights in its legal home country. This is far from a trivial condition, but again history shows how many foundations have survived depressions, wars, and revolutions….(More)”

Building the World We Deserve: A New Framework for Infrastructure


Introductory letter to a new whitepaper published by Siegel Family Endowment that outlines a new framework for understanding and funding infrastructure: “This story begins, as many set in New York City do, with the subway. As transportation enthusiasts, we’re fascinated by trains, especially the remarkable system that runs above and below the city’s streets. It was the discovery of this shared passion for understanding how our subway system works that got us talking about infrastructure a few years ago.

Infrastructure, in the most traditional sense, brings to mind physical constructions: city streets, power lines, the pipes that carry water into your home. But what about all the other things that make society function? Having seen the decline in investment in the country’s physical infrastructure, and aware of the many ways the digital world is upending our definition of the term, we began exploring how Siegel Family Endowment could play a role in the future of infrastructure.

Over the past two years of research and conversations with partners across the field, we’ve realized that our nation’s infrastructure is due for a reset. Hearing the term should evoke a different image: an interconnected web of assets, seen and unseen, that make up the foundation upon which the complicated machinery of modern society operates. It’s inherently multidimensional.

In 2020, the United States has reckoned with a health pandemic and a watershed moment in the fight for racial equity. These challenges highlight how relevant it is to reconsider what society deems the most critical, foundational assets for its citizens—and to ensure they have access to those assets.

Funding infrastructure is often considered the responsibility of government agencies. Yet many of our peers in philanthropy have made important investments in the field. These include working with local governments to fund research, promote novel forms of public-private partnership, and, ultimately, better serve citizens. And if infrastructure is viewed through the broader lens we argue for in this paper, it becomes clear just how much philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, and private entities are investing in our digital and social ecosystems.

We believe that we can do more—and better—if we commit as a country to adopting some of the principles outlined in this paper. However, we also consider this the beginning of a conversation. The time for us to think bigger and bolder about infrastructure is here. Our challenge now is to design it so that more people may thrive….(More)”.

How Billionaires Can Fund Moonshot Efforts to Save the World


Essay by Ivan Amato: “For the past year, since the 50th anniversary of the original moon landing and amid the harsh entrance and unfolding of a pandemic that has affected the entire globe’s citizenry, I have been running a philanthropy-supported publishing experiment on Medium.com titled the Moonshot CatalogThe goal has been to inspire the nation’s more than 2,000 ultrawealthy households to mobilize a smidgeon more — even 1 percent more — of their collective wealth to help solve big problems that threaten our future.

A single percent may seem a small fraction to devote. But when you consider that the richest families have amassed a net worth of more than $4 trillion, that 1 percent tops $40 billion — enough to make a real difference in any number of ways. This truth only magnifies now as we approach a more honest reality-based acknowledgment of the systemic racial and social inequities and injustices that have shunted so much wealth, privilege, and security into such a rarefied micropercentage of the world’s 7.8 billion people.

Such was the simple conceit underlying the Moonshot Catalog, which just came to a close: The deepest pocketed among us would up their philanthropy game if they were more aware of hugely consequential projects they could help usher to the finish line by donating a tad more of the wealth they control….

The first moonshot articles had titles including “Feeding 2050’s Ten Billion People,” “Taming the Diseases of Aging,” and the now tragically premonitional “Ending Pandemic Disease.” Subsequent articles featured achievable solutions for our carbon-emission crisis, including ones replacing current cement and cooling technologies, underappreciated perpetrators of climate change that are responsible for some 16 percent of the world’s carbon emissions; next-generation battery technology, without which much of the potential benefit of renewable energy will remain untapped; advanced nuclear-power plants safe enough to help enable a carbon-neutral economy; and hastening the arrival of fusion energy….

Common to these projects, and others such as the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, is the huge and difficult commitment each one demands. Many require a unique, creative, and sustained synthesis of science, engineering, entrepreneurship, policy and financial support, and international cooperation.

But there is no magical thinking in the Catalog. The projects are demonstrably doable. What’s more, humanity already has successfully taken on comparably ambitious challenges. Think of the eradication of polio, the development of birth-control technologies, the mitigation of acid rain and the ozone hole, and the great, albeit imperfect, public-health win of municipal water treatment. Oh, and the 1969 moonshot….(More)”.

How Philanthropy Can Help Governments Accelerate a Real Recovery


Essay by Michele Jolin and David Medina: “The cracks and design flaws of our nation’s public systems have been starkly exposed as governments everywhere struggle to respond to health and economic crises that disproportionately devastate Black residents and communities of color. As government leaders respond to the immediate emergencies, they also operate within a legacy of government practices, policies and systems that have played a central role in creating and maintaining racial inequity. 

Philanthropy can play a unique and catalytic role in accelerating a real recovery by helping government leaders make smarter decisions, helping them develop and effectively use the data-and-evidence capacity they need to spotlight and understand root causes of community challenges, especially racial disparities, and increase the impact of government investments that could close racial gaps and accelerate economic opportunity. Philanthropy can uniquely support leaders within government who are best positioned to redesign and reimagine public systems to deliver equity and impact.

We are already seeing that the growing number of governments that have built data-driven “Moneyball” muscles are better positioned both to manage through this crisis and to dismantle racist government practices. While we recognize that data and evidence can sometimes reinforce biases, we also know that government decision-makers who have access to more and better information—and who are trained to navigate the nuance and possible bias in this information—can use data to identify disparate racial outcomes, understand the core problems and target resources to close gaps. Government decision-makers who have the skills to test, learn, and improve government programs can prioritize resource allocation toward programs that both deliver better results and address the complexity of social problems.

Philanthropy can accelerate this public sector transformation by supporting change led by internal government champions who are challenging the status quo. By doing so, philanthropic leaders can increase the impact of the trillions of dollars invested by governments each year. Philanthropies such as Ballmer Group, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Blue Meridian Partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Arnold Ventures understand this and are already putting their money where their mouths are. By helping governments make smarter budget and policy decisions, they can ensure that public dollars flow toward solutions that make a meaningful, measurable difference on our biggest challenges, whether it’s increasing economic mobility, reducing racial disparities in health and other outcomes, or addressing racial bias in government systems.

We need other donors to join them in prioritizing this kind of systems change….(More)”.

Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology


Book by Evan Michelson: “An increasingly important and often overlooked issue in science and technology policy is recognizing the role that philanthropies play in setting the direction of research. In an era where public and private resources for science are strained, the practices that foundations adopt to advance basic and applied research needs to be better understood. This first-of-its-kind study provides a detailed assessment of the current state of science philanthropy. This examination is particularly timely, given that science philanthropies will have an increasingly important and outsized role to play in advancing responsible innovation and in shaping how research is conducted.

Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology surveys the landscape of contemporary philanthropic involvement in science and technology by combining theoretical insights drawn from the responsible research and innovation (RRI) framework with empirical analysis investigating an array of detailed examples and case studies. Insights from interviews conducted with foundation representatives, scholars, and practitioners from a variety of sectors add real-world perspective. A wide range of philanthropic interventions are explored, focusing on support for individuals, institutions, and networks, with attention paid to the role that science philanthropies play in helping to establish and coordinate multi-sectoral funding partnerships. Novel approaches to science philanthropy are also considered, including the emergence of crowdfunding and the development of new institutional mechanisms to advance scientific research. The discussion concludes with an imaginative look into the future, outlining a series of lessons learned that can guide how new and established science philanthropies operate and envisioning alternative scenarios for the future that can inform how science philanthropy progresses over the coming decades.

This book offers a major contribution to the advancement of philanthropic investment in science and technology. Thus, it will be of considerable interest to researchers and students in public policy, public administration, political science, science and technology studies, sociology of science, and related disciplines….(More)”.

Modeling the Human Trajectory


David Roodman at Open Philanthropy: “… How much should we care about people who will live far in the future? Or about chickens today? What events could extinguish civilization? Could artificial intelligence (AI) surpass human intelligence?

One strand of analysis that has caught our attention is about the pattern of growth of human society over many millennia, as measured by number of people or value of economic production. Perhaps the mathematical shape of the past tells us about the shape of the future. I dug into that subject. A draft of my technical paper is here. (Comments welcome.) In this post, I’ll explain in less technical language what I learned.

It’s extraordinary that the larger the human economy has become—the more people and the more goods and services they produce—the faster it has grown on average. Now, especially if you’re reading quickly, you might think you know what I mean. And you might be wrong, because I’m not referring to exponential growth. That happens when, for example, the number of people carrying a virus doubles every week. Then the growth rate (100% increase per week) holds fixed. The human economy has grown super-exponentially. The bigger it has gotten, the faster it has doubled, on average. The global economy churned out $74 trillion in goods and services in 2019, twice as much as in 2000.1 Such a quick doubling was unthinkable in the Middle Ages and ancient times. Perhaps our earliest doublings took millennia.

If global economic growth keeps accelerating, the future will differ from the present to a mind-boggling degree. The question is whether there might be some plausibility in such a prospect. That is what motivated my exploration of the mathematical patterns in the human past and how they could carry forward. Having now labored long on the task, I doubt I’ve gained much perspicacity. I did come to appreciate that any system whose rate of growth rises with its size is inherently unstable. The human future might be one of explosion, perhaps an economic upwelling that eclipses the industrial revolution as thoroughly as it eclipsed the agricultural revolution. Or the future could be one of implosion, in which environmental thresholds are crossed or the creative process that drives growth runs amok, as in an AI dystopia. More likely, these impulses will mix.

I now understand more fully a view that shapes the work of Open Philanthropy. The range of possible futures is wide. So it is our task as citizens and funders, at this moment of potential leverage, to lower the odds of bad paths and raise the odds of good ones….(More)”.

Wisdom or Madness? Comparing Crowds with Expert Evaluation in Funding the Arts


Paper by Ethan R. Mollick and Ramana Nanda: “In fields as diverse as technology entrepreneurship and the arts, crowds of interested stakeholders are increasingly responsible for deciding which innovations to fund, a privilege that was previously reserved for a few experts, such as venture capitalists and grant‐making bodies. Little is known about the degree to which the crowd differs from experts in judging which ideas to fund, and, indeed, whether the crowd is even rational in making funding decisions. Drawing on a panel of national experts and comprehensive data from the largest crowdfunding site, we examine funding decisions for proposed theater projects, a category where expert and crowd preferences might be expected to differ greatly.

We instead find significant agreement between the funding decisions of crowds and experts. Where crowds and experts disagree, it is far more likely to be a case where the crowd is willing to fund projects that experts may not. Examining the outcomes of these projects, we find no quantitative or qualitative differences between projects funded by the crowd alone, and those that were selected by both the crowd and experts. Our findings suggest that crowdfunding can play an important role in complementing expert decisions, particularly in sectors where the crowds are end users, by allowing projects the option to receive multiple evaluations and thereby lowering the incidence of “false negatives.”…(More)”.

The Pledging Puzzle: How Can Revocable Promises Increase Charitable Giving


Paper by James Andreoni and Marta Serra-Garcia: “What is the value of pledges if they are often reneged upon? In this paper we show – both theoretically and experimentally – that pledges can be used to screen donors and to better understand their motives for giving. In return, nonprofit managers can use the information they glean from pledges to better target future charitable giving appeals and interventions to donors, such as expressions of gratitude. In an experiment, we find that offering the option to pledge gifts induces self-selection. If expressions of gratitude are then targeted to individuals who select into pledges, reneging can be significantly reduced. Our findings provide an explanation for the potential usefulness of pledges….(More)”.

Is it time to challenge the power of philanthropy?


Blog post by Magdalena Kuenkel: “Over the past six months, we’ve partnered with Nesta to explore some of these questions. In the “Foundation Horizon Scan,” unveiled at an event today with sector leaders, we take the long view to explore the future of philanthropic giving. In compiling the report, we reviewed relevant literature and spoke to over 30 foundation leaders and critics internationally to understand what the challenges to foundations’ legitimacy and impact mean in practice and how foundations are responding to them today. 

We learned about new grantmaking practices that give more power to grantees and/or beneficiaries and leverage the power of digital technologies. We heard about alternative governance models to address power imbalances and saw many more collaborative efforts (big and small) to address today’s complex challenges. We spoke to funders who prioritise place-based giving in order to ensure that beneficiaries’ voices are heard.

Alongside these practical responses, we also identified eight strategic areas where foundations face difficult trade-offs:

  • Power and control
  • Diversity
  • Transparency
  • Role in public sector delivery
  • Time horizons
  • Monitoring, evaluation and learning
  • Assets
  • Collaboration 

There are no simple solutions. When devising future strategies, foundations will inevitably have to make tradeoffs between different priorities. Pursuing one path might well mean forfeiting the benefits afforded by a different approach. Near-term vs. long-term? Supporting vs. challenging government? Measuring vs. learning?

The “Foundation Horizon Scan” is an invitation to explore these issues – it is directed at foundation leaders, boards, grantees and beneficiaries. What do you think is the role of philanthropy in the future and what share of power should they hold in society?… (More)”.