SeventyFour/shutterstock
SeventyFour/shutterstock

“There has not been a large funding community around infectious diseases, except for the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust, maybe because it hasn’t felt urgent,” said Valerie Conn, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, an organization formed earlier this decade with a mission to give philanthropists the background they need to support the stately procession of basic science research.

Of course, that was before COVID-19. Now, it’s undeniably urgent. With millions sickened worldwide, many new and longtime philanthropists and foundations have turned their focus to the coronavirus, motivated by experts who say the only true solutions to this disease are likely to be medical cures and vaccines. As a result, the Science Philanthropy Alliance (SPA) has had to pivot from its highly deliberate approach to offering more “quick and dirty” guidance for funders looking to plug right into a global health crisis.

The alliance came together in 2013-2014 as a group of philanthropists and funders worried that weakened government support for research and development would slow progress in the natural sciences and mathematics. At the same time, basic research has historically been a small chunk of philanthropic giving. Supporters formed the SPA to boost giving in fields whose cutting-edge arcana isn’t always understandable to non-specialists, let alone non-scientists. As new donors, including tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, have waded into science funding, SPA has helped them set up their giving programs.

“It’s not easy to figure out how to give money away,” said Robert Tjian, a senior science advisor at SPA, as well as co-founder and former president. But the alliance, like so many others in philanthropy right now, was forced to adjust to the reality and needs of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Science Philanthropy Alliance has a certain DNA—we’re really about basic discovery and foundational research for the long term, not reactive-type research,” Tjian said. “But these are unusual times, and any of us who can do anything to help get our country and the world out of this nasty, deep hole, we should.”

Pre-pandemic, when donors or foundations wanted grantmaking guidance in a particular area of research, explained Conn, the SPA would spend perhaps six months “landscaping” the field to identify the meaningful gaps in knowledge and in funding. “We’d then work with the philanthropists to figure out the funding vehicle, such as whether to create a fellowship or an institute, or to fund work at several institutions,” Conn said. The goal was to be as thorough as possible to best serve the subject.

The original SPA foundations included notable science funders: the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Kavli Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the Simons Foundation. Other powerhouse research funders, such as the Rita Allen Foundation, have also joined the affinity group. And research partners include some three dozen top institutions, including universities and independent institutes. As a result, they bring plenty of experience to their task of championing research and advising philanthropists.

Over the years, we’ve written about a number of funders—including the organizations that partnered to form the SPA—motivated by concerns about stagnating government support for basic science and the recurring threat of federal budget cuts. While government agencies remain by far the largest supporters of science research in the United States, philanthropists also seek to throw some weight behind niche, underfunded interests or edgier projects that might have a hard time securing public support.

Of course, basic research is not just for a few Ph.D.s debating how many Higgs bosons can dance on the head of a pin. As Robert Kirshner, chief program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, said in a previous IP post, “Today’s basic science becomes tomorrow’s technology and products.” That process takes a long time to unfold, so science funding typically requires a lot of patience, something an effective philanthropist can bring to the table.

Related: Help Wanted: A Funders Alliance Rallies Newcomers to Science Philanthropy

These days, however, when givers call the SPA to discuss COVID-19 research, the goal isn’t just long-term knowledge, but to support scientists who, right now, are trying to save lives and restore normalcy.

“We made the decision to expand our services because of the emergency, but there isn’t time for a six-month landscape survey,” said Conn. “We had to become quick and dirty. Our organization pivoted to create new short- and long-term COVID-related activities.”

So many coronavirus topics that affect decision-making today need additional scientific research—even such seemingly simple questions as how masks work. There’s also vaccine development, testing of existing drugs that might be effective against COVID-19, the biology of the coronavirus and how it mutates, among others.

The SPA doesn’t try to steer funders in one direction or another, so much as to show them how to build upon their previous interests to support coronavirus-related research work.

“Before the coronavirus, I used to joke that we’re in a science-philanthropy emergency,” said Conn. “Now, we really are in a science-philanthropy emergency.”

But none of this means the SPA stopped thinking about the future. “Even as we are working hard to crush the curve through philanthropy, we are also keeping an eye on the long-term pipeline of science necessary to get through this pandemic, as well as the next,” Conn said.

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