In 2016 Americans donated more than $390bn to charity, according to the Giving USA Foundation, which belongs to the Giving Institute. The vast majority of these donations – totalling $281bn – was given by individuals, with more than $40bn heading to foundations. Science has benefited from this generosity too, with organizations such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Breakthrough Prize and the Simons Foundation all opening up new avenues of support for individual scientists and institutions.

There is evidence that “high-end” giving – measuring in the billions of dollars – is on the rise in the US. One only needs to look at the Science Philanthropy Alliance – a network of foundations that supports basic research – to see evidence of an uptick in high-net-worth investments in basic research. Launched in 2012 and led by physicist Marc Kastner since 2015, the alliance aims to enable the success and growth of philanthropic support of basic scientific research. Its members include well-known institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, and even the Wellcome Trust in the UK. Its goal is to increase the financial support from such organizations as well as from philanthropists.

“There is a significant increase in the appreciation of the importance of philanthropic support for science and one indication is the growth in membership of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. We began with five foundations and now have 19 members,” says Robert Conn, chair of the alliance’s board and president and chief executive officer of the Kavli Foundation, which endowed 20 research institutes. “Another indicator is the support for certain major initiatives, such as Chan Zuckerberg. This initiative is very significant in terms of the scale of the gift and its focus on funding basic scientific research.” Indeed, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative commits $3bn over 10 years to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy”.

Conn, who is an applied physicist and engineer by training and was the founding director of the Institute of Plasma and Fusion Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, says there are two factors behind the upsurge of large-scale philanthropic funding. One is the recent recession that began in 2008. “A number of us recognized we would not economically recover from this for probably a decade, and we weren’t far off,” Conn explains. “This implied that government support for science and other things was going to be at best flat even with the best intentions.”

The other factor is the huge amounts of wealth that some in the US had amassed over the last four decades, which, according to Conn, has created a ripe environment for giving back. “The government has been constrained by what it needed to do to recover from the economic crisis. Yet in parallel to this, extraordinary fortunes continue to be made, and now the question is what will those people with their fortunes do with that wealth?” adds Conn. “[The industrialist Andrew] Carnegie said, to paraphrase, if you die with all your wealth, you die poor. What he meant is that because society and the system have enabled you to accumulate extraordinary wealth, then you have a responsibility to give back to that society.”

Conn says that there is something unique in the US that encourages large-scale philanthropy. “We have in American society a cultural imperative to give back,” he notes. “It is a distinctive singular feature of American society. It doesn’t mean that people elsewhere in the world are not generous, but in the US the way our system developed, the scale of giving back swamps anywhere else.” Essentially, he says, if the system allowed bright minds to build a Microsoft or a Facebook or a Google, then those who amassed the wealth feel compelled to pay it back by paying it forward and they are doing so. “This ecosystem is very distinctively American,” he says. “It didn’t happen overnight, it happened over 150–200 years and the truth is that it is part of our cultural fabric.”

More dollars for science Science philanthropy comes in many forms and provides funding through many different models. As Kastner notes, organizations such as the HHMI provide grants to individual scientists. As for the Kavli Foundation, it funds well-regarded institutes, including the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo. The Simons Foundation also provides numerous types of support, including money to encourage the development of collaborations in cutting-edge fields. It has about 120 scientists on staff, including condensed-matter physicist Andrew Millis. He serves as associate director of physics at the foundation and is a co-director of the Center for Computational Physics (CCQ) at the Flatiron Institute – a recent Simons-sponsored enterprise in New York. “The Simons Foundation is almost unique because its philanthropic offices are staffed by practicing scientists,” he says.

When Millis joined in 2012, the Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) division was just one year old. “We put in place a system for philanthropic support of the theoretical side of the MPS fields,” he says. “When I joined I worked with [the team] to get their views of areas where philanthropic support would be most needed and most beneficial.” They held round-table discussions with theoretical physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians and others and asked them what their needs are and how they can be met.

This proactive and in-depth approach led to many successful projects, including a flagship programme for mid-career researchers: the Simons Investigators Program. “The idea is you have people who have tenure so they have a secure base and now have the opportunity to do creative things. And we should give them some resources to do it,” he says. The programme, now beginning its 6th year, provides around $100 000 per year for five years to be used as the investigator deems necessary. “The core of our programme is finding truly outstanding individuals and giving them support to help them do what is important,” says Millis.

Taking bigger risks

Despite the diversity of support models that exist, and conversations that Kastner and his colleagues in the community have with current and future donors, there is one specific issue that many feel is extremely important to acknowledge. No matter how large private philanthropy will become, it cannot and should not supplant federal government funding.

“Philanthropy has never been more important but it is certainly not going to save the system,” says Kastner. “Private foundations can do things that the federal government can’t do, but still can’t fill the gap.” Nevertheless, he feels private donors are in a position to fund scientific research that is nascent or viewed as particularly risky. The planned Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is currently under construction in Chile, was deemed an ambitious project, but it did not get off the ground until 2008 when Bill Gates and others financed it with $30m. “Private foundations can assume the risk that the government can’t because its primary responsibility is to serve the nation,” says Kastner.

Conn agrees that science philanthropy can take bigger risks and that it can act quicker than government. “It complements but doesn’t replace or supplant what the government does and must do. Particularly in the early stages of research, an idea might be too risky to fund [through the government] because it doesn’t seem to have enough oomph, but philanthropy can take the risk to fund it and often does,” he says. “So you have this synergy of philanthropic support of scientists with their early, risky ideas, but once they get results, if they are positive, they are in the position to make a much more compelling proposal to the federal government. Now there is less risk and the government can provide more money than philanthropy can provide.”

But philanthropic enterprises cannot support science at the scale of the federal government. Conn estimates that US federal government funding for basic science across all agencies is around $40bn, whereas charitable donations make up a mere 10% of that figure. “The federal government is the people – the core representative of the people of the US,” he says. “And it must do what is in the best long-term interest of the country, and that is supporting science.”

One challenge facing the Science Philanthropy Alliance, especially as it expands, is the strong preference that these philanthropic endeavours show to biomedical rather than the physical sciences. “We have just completed a survey of American universities and institutions and asked them how much they received in support and 80% goes to biomedical research,” says Kastner. “The numbers for physics are very small. As a physicist I find this discouraging.”

Part of the issue is that although the Science Philanthropy Alliance exists to help new and existing philanthropies with their growth efforts, the organization is not there to persuade high-net-worth individuals and families how they should spend their assets. Kastner tells the story of an employee for a billionaire investor who asked him about using the money to fill research “gaps”. After Kastner noted that there is more impact in the physical sciences, they replied “no, I mean what are the gaps in cancer research?”

For physicists who are looking to philanthropy to fund their big idea, Kastner recommends investing in long-term partnerships with potential funders. “Where scientists and institutions have success is with the relationships they build over time with philanthropists,” he says. “My advice is to do a really good job of communicating to everyone you talk to at a very simple level of why your work is exciting. What we see is those scientists who can really generate excitement about their work to a broad audience can sometimes get a philanthropist involved.”

Fostering alliances is especially critical right now. “Science philanthropy has always been important but over the past decade I see the federal support focusing on relatively more targeted and goal-driven projects,” says Millis. “I can understand why that is important to the nation. But support for individual creativity and the outside-the-box work that brings you new ideas has suffered a bit so it’s very good that the Simons Foundation can support this.”

For Conn, philanthropy is a “partner” in the system with the federal government. “We are jeopardizing our future by somehow not recognizing how our ecosystem of discovery and innovation works,” he says. “And if you cut too severely the largest part of science funding, you endanger the life of the system.”