Assessing the effect of philanthropic funding on biomedical research

An RBR Writing Program post by Eve Granatosky

The National Institutes of Health is the largest funder of basic biomedical research; however, hypercompetition for NIH funds has led many scientists to pursue private, philanthropic sources to fund their research. While new initiatives like the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub garner media attention, more established foundations like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society also award grants to researchers working in areas in line with the organizations’ missions. While some individual private grants can provide substantial support to an individual scientist or a specific project, philanthropic funding of research is insufficient to make up for funding cuts to the NIH.

The proper application of philanthropic funds has important effects on the sustainability of the research community. In the fall of 2016, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation convened a workshop for representatives from foundations who all share the goal of strategically investing funds to advance basic science. Many of the challenges private funders face are shared by study sections and review panels in the public sphere. This includes an overreliance on bibliometrics, biased self-reporting from award recipients, and positive feedback loops where elite scientists with track records of success are funded at a disproportionate level at the expense of other investigators.

A report from the workshop discussed these challenges, as well as how to assess basic research with unclear or unexpected outcomes. The workshop participants also considered the role of risk and failure in their investments, and how negative research results might inform their future ventures. Finally the participants outlined some next steps for their organizations, including continuing to shape more robust evaluation practices for their philanthropy, and engaging a larger community of science funders through publications and presentations at conferences.

One unique advantage of philanthropies highlighted in this report is the non-monetary support that foundations can provide researchers in addition to grant funding. Foundations who invest in conferences or sponsor networks and coalitions of scientists are still supporting research, albeit in a less tangible fashion. Furthermore, investments in research and researchers, even if smaller than grants from federal agencies, can have a big effect on a researcher’s career and their ability to contribute to their field.

Philanthropic contributions made up just 3 percent of overall U.S. medical and health research and development spending in 2015. While it cannot substitute for federal investments in research, private funding can play an important catalyzing role in advancing basic and translational scientific research. Improving the methods by which these organizations award grants is important for the continued support of a variety of science and scientists, and recognizing and overcoming some of the challenges highlighted in this report is a key step toward this goal.

Eve Granatosky is passionate about promoting effective science communication and encouraging career development for graduate students. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame and is the co-founder of the Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame. Follow Eve on Twitter (@granatosky) or contact her by email (

The RBR Writing Program is intended to help graduate students and postdocs receive policy writing experience. For more information, contact RBR Director Chris Pickett.