Philanthropists, billionaires, and foundations have joined governments to become major funders of scientific research. The practice has become so important, the phrase “scientific philanthropy” has been coined to describes the practice, (omit this portion in parantheses – more critically important to make progress on the world’s most pressing challenges). While governments pursue national priorities, today’s philanthropic donors seek to address the world’s problems, as well as support personal interests and priorities.

Recent articles, including one in the New York Times, detail how entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Eric Schmidt of Google, as well as many other billionaires, have contributed sums ranging in the tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars. Paul Allen established the Allen Institute for Brain Science with a donation of $500 million. This dwarfs the Obama Administration’s recent $100 million initiative for mapping the brain. Indeed,  the government campaign was shaped by some of the same philanthropies’ scientists.  Scientific philanthropists have also developed the needed project selection and management infrastructure and the innovation networks needed to maximize the impact of their donations.

With a quickly-evolving landscape of challenges and threats to peace and prosperity around the world, government debt hamstringing nations from acting, and successful entrepreneurs turning their attention to the legacies they will establish, scientific philanthropy has a critical role to play, and it comes at a time that it is much needed. Areas of research and global challenges being addressed by scientific philanthropy are many, including: marine research; ovarian cancer, melanoma, and other cancers; brain science, astronomy, basic research in particular physics, archaeology, space travel, and global health including tuberculosis, vaccines, and the eradication of malaria and polio.

It is interesting to consider the parallels with the Renaissance, when wealthy patrons also heavily funded the arts, mathematics and science. Many of those Renaissance court scientists, including Galileo, had renounced the orthodoxy of University life.  It is not clear to us if the current growth in ’scientific philanthropy’ is driven by the rapid creation of vast IT based fortunes  or  the eternal concern with government funding priorities or both.  Seventy years ago there were virtually no federal funds for scientific research and that changed with Vannevar Bush’s post world war II efforts to create the National Science Foundation.  Perhaps that system of federally-funded research is giving way to more decentralized, ad-hoc process, driven by affinity investors.  Let us know what you think!