Home » Blog » Alliance Discussion with Bob Conn, PhD: The History of Science Policy and Philanthropy’s Role in Research in the United States

Alliance Discussion with Bob Conn, PhD: The History of Science Policy and Philanthropy’s Role in Research in the United States

From the public sector to the private sector to philanthropy, the unique ecosystem of research and discovery in the United States has shepherded countless advances in science and medicine for decades. We were recently joined by Bob Conn, PhD, Walter Zabler Distinguished Professor and Dean Emeritus of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, and recipient of Research!America’s 2024 Gordon and Llura Gund Leadership Award, for an alliance discussion. Dr. Conn spoke about the role that American philanthropy has played in U.S. research and the unique advantages that this has provided to allow America’s research sector to flourish. Here are some of his thoughts on:

The history and recent issues of science policy:

“It’s a good point to go back to the United States’ history and [understand] how science policy has evolved in our country. There wasn’t much science policy up until the Civil War. The first 120 years, no one did a lot of science policy. During the Civil War, however, President Lincoln felt he needed the advice of the country’s best scientists and engineers. His administration had the idea to establish the National Academy of Sciences. The aim there was to both honor scientists but also to develop a body of people who were distinguished but not directly involved with government, that the government could ask for advice on science, technology, engineering, and ultimately medicine, and that’s how policy really began.”

“It didn’t develop into a large business as it is today, if I could put it that way, even during World War I; what changed was World War II. Science in many ways won World War II. Now that’s taking anything away from all the troops who did all the heavy lifting to get us to the endgame, but we got to the endgame and won because there were a lot of technical developments during the war like radar, the atomic bomb, and some others. What has developed in the country now, is that after World War II, the government decided that engagement and support for science was critical both for our economy and our national defense, and it’s been that way ever since.”

“Today, we still have significant science issues in front of us. In my mind, basic science, but also basic technology and engineering, are at the forefront of innovation. And most of the innovation is what drives, at the margins, the development of our economy, what produces the jobs and the high GDP that we have. So, we need policies that will continue to drive […] science, technology, engineering, and medicine forward. Don’t put too many constraints on what some people do, so that we can really go look at the edges of what we understand.”

Philanthropy’s role in funding the evolving research ecosystem:

“I, as you say, have argued that while government support writ large is fundamentally irreplaceable, philanthropy has played a unique role in the United States in advancing both higher education and science and technology. A group I was involved with did a study recently, of how much money does the government spend and how much money comes from those who are the performers of basic science, those at universities primarily, and some of our major private nonprofits like the Salk Institute. If you sum [up] the monies that have been given in the past, which ended up in the endowments of our research universities, and current giving, and how the university spent that money, it turns out to be almost 40% of what the government spends every year. I’m going to say that one more time, 40% of what the federal government spends. That’s not ignorable, that’s a big number. The money that is part of that 40% has come from historical giving, going back to the 19th century. So, philanthropy plays a unique and large role in the U.S. innovation, discovery system and science technology.”

How philanthropy historically influenced the landscape of higher education in the U.S.:

“The United States has a unique system of public and private universities that’s not matched anywhere on the globe. How did that come about? Well, it turns out if you look at the history after the Civil War, in the second half of the 19th century, yes, we have a gilded age, but many of the people who became very wealthy, then gave much of it back. And many of our private universities were founded in the second half of the 19th century – Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon – were all founded by philanthropists. Our universities in the mid to late 19th century were all religious faiths, and they were founded on a model of how professors and students would work together to advance all fields, and particularly science. You have a graduate school, you have a professor, the professor does work with a student, and you sort of create a scientific infrastructure. We didn’t have that prior to the new universities that were founded. So, philanthropy has not only been involved in supporting science, but it has also been involved in supporting higher education.”

Integrating philanthropy and government support to drive science innovation:

“I would say having this integrated innovation system of government support plus philanthropic support – it’s the combination that has given us the strength we have. I don’t think government ought to try to control philanthropy, and I don’t think philanthropy ought to try to influence government too much. What philanthropy needs to do and bring to the table is what I call risk capital. Philanthropy, for the most part, is set up by individuals, when they pass [away], they often have a foundation that continues in the spirit of the founder, and those foundations are nimble. They’re much nimbler than government. So, if you’re a scientist and you have a wild and crazy idea, but you’ve got some basis for it, if it turns out it’s right or true, it might really change the field. You’re more likely to get a ‘yes’ answer in support of it from philanthropy, then you might be from government. The government does take risks, I agree, but not to the degree that can be done with philanthropy. So, we have a system whose risk tolerance is expanded by the presence of philanthropy, and where new things can be begun by philanthropy, and if they turn out to be terrific, the government can take it over. I would look at what we are as a system. And it has been extraordinarily effective. And I’m not sure I would taper too much with it at this point.”

Scientific discoveries that have been made possible because of the collaboration between philanthropy and government:

“I think if I might start, […] that’s neuroscience. The government in 2014, 2015, and 2016 decided to add about $500 million a year net new money to the NIH and some other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, to be doing new things in neuroscience. Where did that come from? How did that initiative come about? It came about from a partnership between philanthropies. In 2011, the Catholic Foundation, the Paul Allen Foundation, and a foundation in England called the Gatsby Foundation of Lord Sainsbury held the meeting and asked a question. What are the opportunities at the intersection of nanoscience and neuroscience? Out of that came a burst of creativity, the kind of crazy creativity I talked about, which philanthropies are naturally ready to support, and we [The Kavli Foundation] did. When they decided to write a white paper, we provided the money for them to then travel back and talk to the government about this.”

“The idea fundamentally was that so much is developed by way of technological instrumentation and sensing, that we could develop new tools to make new discoveries in the brain. And I will tell you from experience that tools are everything. If you can’t measure it, you can’t know it. So, by taking the initiative of developing tools first, and then applying the tools to the biggest questions in neuroscience, we’ve made advances over the last decade that would simply not have been possible had that initiative not been undertaken. And where did it start? With philanthropy. In fact, when the President announced that initiative, three or four major foundations committed big money in parallel with the government. We committed $40 million at the time from the Kavli Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute committed $100 million. So, it became something of a public-private initiative, but we didn’t interfere with one another. We enhanced the initiative through our methods in philanthropy and the government set up a big infrastructure and pursued it in a very good way, at the government level, and with much more money.”

View the full discussion here.

Dr. Conn is the 2024 Advocacy Award recipient for the Gordon and Llura Gund Leadership Award, an award that honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to increasing the level of advocacy for medical, public health or other health-related research in their communities or on a state or national level. Register for this year’s Advocacy Awards and learn more about the 2024 honorees.