France A. Córdova is an astrophysicist. Maybe that’s why she’s used to taking the long view.
Since she was appointed in May as the new president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, Córdova’s job can be summed up in a line: increase philanthropic funding for basic science. That’s the primary mission of the alliance, a 34-member organization of science funders that includes many of the more familiar names in the sector—Simons, Moore, Sloan, Kavli, Chan-Zuckerberg, Packard, Wellcome and, most recently, Gates—as well as a few you might not recognize immediately.
Now, with a few months as president of science philanthropy’s chief affinity group under her belt, Córdova spoke with us about the alliance’s role and its most important focus areas for the coming years, as funders and society in general make tough decisions about the research worth supporting, while trying to understand the risks—real or imagined—that may accompany new discoveries or technologies.
Córdova comes to the alliance with leadership experience in both government and academia. She was the first woman chief scientist at NASA, did a stint as president of Purdue University, and was director of the National Science Foundation from 2014 through 2020. Of course, that’s only part of her CV.
More recently, Córdova joined the advisory board of a venture capital company, and, at the time of our talk, was in the process of joining the board of what she called “a very big” high-tech company. As such, she has been in a position to see how money flows into science from its three major sources—government, business and philanthropy. Certainly, philanthropy’s impact has been personal for her: As a young astrophysicist in the 1970s, Córdova recalls that the powerful telescopes she looked through were paid for by philanthropists writing checks decades before.
Córdova has come to the alliance gig as philanthropy’s role in basic research funding is rising in importance. While the federal government is still the biggest source of dollars for research, the government’s share of science support has been dropping during the 21st century, partly as a function of increasing corporate spending on research. But industry spending tends to be weighted toward applied science—things that can be translated into products and sales. Similarly, federal spending on research, though increasing of late, is weighted toward applied rather than basic research.
According to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, out of roughly $110 billion spent on basic research in this country, federal dollars make up only about $45 billion, with the rest coming from industry, state governments, universities and, of course, philanthropy. This means that science funders, particularly the mega-givers with billions in their control, will be in a position to impact the field in a big way. And ultimately—maybe in years, maybe decades—it’s basic research that enables the development of products, solutions, cures and all the other advances that make a difference in everyday life.
At the Science Philanthropy Alliance, Córdova is contending with big questions about how science funding is evolving alongside a rapidly changing wider nonprofit world. Basic science—research for research’s sake, in subjects that often mean little to anyone outside very specific fields of study—may seem like one of the areas in philanthropy that’s least subject to the mainstream concerns of the day, such as equity and diversity. If that was true once, it isn’t any longer.
“I think the real question is, how is philanthropy changing like other sectors?” Córdova said. “One of the reasons the alliance is important is ensuring that people are aware of these trends, not to become trendy, but because there’s some value in those trends for the directions that philanthropy can take, and certainly for the impact that it can have.”
Some basic science research, Córdova acknowledged, is essentially arcane—that is, of interest and concern to a limited number of folks with Ph.D.s, and not, as she puts it, “immediately impactful to life on earth.” But that’s also changing, she said, as technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing are developed that could impact society in ways we have yet to fully grasp. “I think science philanthropy has to navigate that, as do all those other sectors, with awareness of the social impact in addition to the discovery impacts.”
Among the alliance’s main roles is to provide guidance to new foundations and new philanthropists. As Córdova explained, the alliance will help any foundation or giver interested in basic science (not just dues-paying members) to develop their funding priorities and sharpen their focus. Sometimes, this results in a member relationship; sometimes, after the project or consultation is completed, the alliance and the funder in question part ways. The important point here for science funders, especially those newer to the field, is that the alliance exists for them as a resource. And it’s a pretty deep resource, one that can tap into the collective know-how of both the alliance’s staff and its member organizations.
Sometimes these new science givers seeking guidance from the alliance do become members. You may have heard of a couple, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who did fairly well in the tech industry and decided to steer some of their philanthropy into science, among other areas. the alliance’s then-President Marc Kastner and then-Vice President Valerie Conn (herself later an executive director and president of the alliance) advised the Facebook couple for a year before the launch of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), helping them form a science advisory board and bring their nascent science philanthropy up to speed.
Science philanthropy is also getting more complex, in part through the rising use of partnerships with universities and other entities beyond philanthropy. And while most alliance members are U.S.-based, two are British and one is Canadian. More international relationships are likely to arise as researchers ask questions and do science that doesn’t stop at borders.
For Córdova, driving more funding toward basic science means getting better at telling the science story. With so many pressing needs clamoring for philanthropic dollars, communicating the value of basic science to potential funders, particularly the expanding class of billionaires who have the potential to make transformative gifts, will always be a tough challenge.
“How do we convince them that in addition to funding museums or other social causes, that science has needs, especially basic science, when we can’t even say what the impact is exactly going to be?” Córdova said. “Explaining that, plus identifying areas of research and diversifying the giving landscape, are what I see as immediate challenges for the alliance.”