With federal funding for life science becoming increasingly competitive in the United States, it would be a mistake, particularly for young investigators, not to carefully consider money from private sources.
Several recent scientific initiatives benefit from shared public and private funding and should encourage researchers to consider private funding with the same diligence that is put into applying for federal grants. On May 13, 2016, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI), a project supported by federal agencies and private donors, each contributing over $100 million. The NMI follows on the heels of the BRAIN Initiative, launched in 2014 by federal agencies; it grew out of privately funded research and continues to be supported in part by private research foundations such as the Allen Institute and the Kavli Foundation.
Historically, private funding was the main and often only support for scientific endeavors. In the United States, government funding for research was rare before World War II. From 1945 to 2003, federal spending on biomedical research steadily increased, and it is now the main means of support for academic research. However, the stagnation in federal funding since 2003 has led to increasing concerns that science will suffer, because more risky or preliminary projects are not likely to get funded, and that this will make the United States less competitive (as we discussed in a previous editorial).
Money from private foundations can fill this financial gap to a degree. Although for some this raises the specter of a feudal society within science where the wealthy few dictate what is and is not investigated, there is no indication that science is becoming a private enterprise. The Science Philanthropy Alliance (which includes, among others, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Kavli, Sloan and Simons Foundations, the Wellcome Trust, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) reported that private funding for basic research in life sciences amounted to over $1 billion in 2015, compared to the ∼$40 billion awarded in federal funds to institutions of higher education. To alleviate concerns that foundations favor research that directly relates to human disease or promises quick applications, the alliance committed to increasing private investment in fundamental research by an additional $1 million annually for five years.
Looking for private sponsors and the notion of having to 'sell' one's work can make researchers uncomfortable. Although there are known examples of large donations that were the direct result of personal encounters between billionaires and scientists, many foundational grants are much smaller in scope and are awarded on the basis of peer review, a process more familiar to researchers. Particularly for young investigators, these grants can be a valuable source of funding for riskier pilot studies which then provide the data needed for a successful federal grant application.
Databases such as GuideStar, Foundation Center and GrantScoop provide lists of nonprofit organizations and their funding goals and restrictions. Many allow users to set up alerts using specific keywords and to conduct customized searches.
Once one identifies a foundation calling for proposals aligned with one's research interest, it can be informative to check its 990-PF, filed with the Internal Revenue Service, which includes fiscal information and complete grant lists. A list of grants previously funded, which can also be requested from a foundation directly, can help one identify the expertise, track record and geographical location of previous awardees to determine whether the foundation puts particular emphasis on certain areas. Institutional grant offices should also be able to provide a list of previous applicants and awardees at one's institution. Another important step is to identify the scientists on the foundation's advisory board, to ascertain whether their expertise is aligned with one's research.
Comparing the number of applicants to the number of awarded grants can provide a reality check as to the competitiveness of a grant and one's likelihood of success. Some foundational grants, such as the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences for young investigators, accept nominations only from an institution and previous awardees.
Privately funded grants have disadvantages that must be taken into account; for instance, they rarely cover institutional overhead costs, and they can be very narrow in focus. The main source of research money in the United States should and will continue to be public, but not investigating which private options are available would be a lost opportunity to a researcher at any career stage.