Philanthropy is Increasingly in the Funding of Physical Sciences in the USA

Philanthropy is Increasing in the Funding of Physical Sciences in the USA
Philanthropy is Increasing in the Funding of Physical Sciences in the USA

Jonathan Feng first came up with the idea of ​​searching for light and weakly interacting elementary particles a few years ago. After one of his speeches, a stranger came to him. That person was Jochen Marschall, science program officer at the Heising-Simons Foundation in California.

The Foundation funded Feng's idea, and the Forward Search Experiment (FASER) was set up in a specially dug trench at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.

Before the collider restarted in the spring of 2022, it happened quickly, and FASER is currently collecting data. Initially, "the money looked like it had fallen from the sky," says Feng, a theoretical physicist at the University of California at Irvine. Later, he learned that Marschall had listened to him talking many times and did some work.

The Mani L. Bhaumik Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCLA is another example of how private funds are used for basic physical science research. Mani Bhaumik funded a postdoctoral fellow in the university's Zvi Bern group in 2014. Two years later he increased his donation to found the institute, and the donation has now grown to $20 million. Bern, the director of the institute, explains: “We are able to recruit about seven postdocs per year. Graduate students, workshops and lectures are also funded by us.
According to Bern, the US physics community would be "totally ruined" without private funding. We could never be as competitive in science as we are now.

The US scientific community relied heavily on private funding in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: think of the universities founded by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie; Private funding has also traditionally supported the development of telescopes. After World War II, as private foundations diverted their funds, the US government increased its support for science. Government funding for science increased after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1957 in 1, but since the mid-1960s it began to decline as a percentage of research funding.

According to physicist and former MIT dean of science Marc Kastner, universities are the largest source of private funding in the United States, and these funds are primarily in the form of start-up funds. A growing number of foundations and ultra-rich people want to support science, and the bulk of their donations go to the field of biomedicine. Kastner assumed the inaugural chair of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which started with six member foundations in 2013 and reached 37 member foundations as of September. The Alliance informs philanthropists on best practices, helps them where to invest their funds, and encourages networking.

While there are regional variations in scientific philanthropy traditions, most are weaker than in the United States. However, it is also gaining momentum in Europe. One example is the CNRS Foundation, which was founded under his own name three years ago and is now supported mostly by legacy gifts from former CNRS employees.
France Córdova, a former NSF director and current president of the association, notes that while foundations have different ideologies and working methods, they all try to make a difference by investing funds in areas where the government usually fails to.

Large donations are made periodically to the physical sciences by foundations and individuals. Jim Simons raised $13 million to save research at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, while T. Denny Sanford donated $70 million to the eponymous South Dakota underground laboratory. These are two important examples. However, private funds are often unable to support large institutions. It tends to focus more on funding people.

In 2021, the Simons Foundation donated over $122 million to math and physical sciences, almost three times more than a decade ago. It includes initiatives to support organizations, lone researchers, teams, meetings and conferences. It also provides funding for initiatives such as the ArXiv Preprint Server and the Simons Observatory in Chile, covering the bulk of the $108,5 million construction cost.

Source and Further Reading: Physics Today 75, 11, 24 (2022);

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