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Philanthropic Funding of Basic Research in Science

Basic research in science refers to research into fundamental knowledge such as the laws of chemistry, as opposed to applied research which refers to research into practical applications of science such as curing diseases. The early 2010s saw a significant decline in United States government funding for scientific research in general. Philanthropists have seen this as a reason to take up some of the slack. Since basic research may have a tendency to be less popular than applied research, philanthropic funding for basic research requires a special focus to make sure it is funded.

Around 2008 there was a concern (which perhaps continues) in the scientific community that philanthropists were tending toward applied research and away from less popular research including basic research. The Science Philanthropy Alliance is a coalition of philanthropists who fund basic research in science. It was formed in response to 2012 United States government research budget cuts. Its purpose is to encourage other philanthropists to support basic research.


The degree to which basic research is funded by philanthropy has been difficult to determine because these figures had not been formally collected as of 2014. To attempt to answer this question, the Science Philanthropy Alliance conducted surveys, once in 2015 with universities, and again in 2016 with the addition of research institutes. In either year, the number they came up with was necessarily a lower bound, as their data was limited to whichever institutions participated in the study.

They came up with a figure of $1.2 billion among 27 universities in 2015 and a figure of $2.3 billion for 42 universities and research institutes in 2016. Among the 26 universities which participated in both the 2015 and 2016 surveys, the figure increased from $1.19 billion to $1.56 billion. It should be noted that these studies indicated some issues with how the funding was distributed, and that federal funding was, for comparison, $38 billion per year. The 2016 survey was published in February of 2017.

However, somewhat confusingly, in a December 2018 blog post, the Science Philanthropy Alliance paints a rather different picture for the role of philanthropy in 2016. According to this article, 8% of funding (amounting to about $4 billion) for basic research came from directed philanthropy (funding designated for specific projects). However as much as 23% of funding came from university's funds and 14% from research institute's funds, most of which are endowments. This presumably comes from philanthropic sources as well, as the article claims a total 44% of basic research is funded by philanthropy. Another 6% came from business, leaving only 49% from the federal government (amounting to $25.2 billion, in apparent contradiction with their own 2016 survey). This blog post cites data from the National Science Foundation (a department of the United States government).



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