A core function of science philanthropy is to put money toward causes that have a hard time attracting public funding, where a bit of private support can make a potentially big difference. One such category is early but promising theories. Another is early but promising people. Since scientists with a track record of data and research success tend to attract the big public grants, newer and younger faculty members can have a tough time obtaining funding and advancing their careers.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, one of the country’s leading private funders of science since its 1964 establishment, has been offering one of the better-known programs for early career scientists and engineers since 1988—the Packard Fellowships in Science and Engineering. The foundation recently announced its 2020 class of fellows—20 early career scientists from universities across the country who will receive $875,000 over five years to pursue their research. If you do the math, this year’s fellowship cohort will come to $17.5 million. Research interests of the new class range from the forces that form stars and planets to the next generation of energy storage.

“The first three years of faculty appointments tend to be the most creative,” said Xiao-Wei Wang, the manager of the Packard Fellows program. For example, it was a Packard fellow, paleontologist Mary Higby Schweitzer, who discovered soft tissue remains in T. rex fossils—it has long been considered impossible for soft tissue to survive in fossils over hundreds of millions of years. But brand-new faculty members may not have the dedicated time or the funds to turn their ideas into reality before they turn into mid-career scientists and engineers.

One of the program’s signature features, not unlike another famed fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, is that it’s pretty much up to the recipients how they want to use the money. “Often, scientific grants are tied to the proposal and the outcomes,” said Wang. “But the hallmark of the program is the flexible nature of the funding.” The Packard funding can go toward nearly anything related to their work, such as supporting graduate or undergraduate students, travel, or other crucial expenses not often covered by grants, such as childcare.

The fact that it’s not always clear what shape a fellow’s work will ultimately assume is a feature, not a bug. Since the fellowship’s establishment, Packard has awarded $447 million to 637 scientists and engineers from 54 universities across the country. “We’re looking for early career researchers who are willing to take risks in their research, and who are creative in their approach,” Wang said.

The fellowships are just one initiative within a sprawling foundation that granted $333 million in 2019 across programs that include conservation, climate change and reproductive health. For example, it has run one of the largest and longest-running ocean conservation programs in philanthropy since 1968. Within its science program, Packard has another subprogram that backs research in support of its environmental goals.

But for early career scientists and engineers at universities across the country, the fellowship is perhaps the foundation’s highest-profile program. Another interesting feature of the program is the nomination process. The foundation invites 50 universities with strong science and engineering departments to nominate two faculty members each year. Of those, the foundation’s advisory panel of 12 scientists and engineers selects the 20 fellows.

The Packard fellows attend annual meetings and many remain lifelong colleagues, said Wang. A fairly good number have gone on to win science and engineering’s top prizes and accolades. Packard alums have won Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, the Fields Medal, the Alan T. Waterman Award, the Breakthrough Prize, the Kavli Prize, and elections to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. More recently, all three U.S. women who won the Nobel Prize in the past three years are Packard Fellows: Frances Arnold, Jennifer Doudna, and Andrea Ghez.