The GiveWell Blog

Scientific research funding

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

One of our priorities over the last few months has been to learn, broadly speaking, about scientific research and the role philanthropy can play in it. Along with political advocacy (which we’ve been writing about recently), we feel that this is one of the major categories of philanthropy that we’re currently least well suited to understand.

This is first in a series of three posts. It discusses:

  • Why we believe it’s important to explore scientific research as a philanthropist.
  • Why we’ve tentatively chosen to start by focusing on life sciences (biology, medicine).
  • The key questions we’ve been focused on.

Why explore scientific research?
We expect it to be a difficult and long-term project to gain competence in scientific research funding. The reasons we think it’s worth doing are that:

  • Scientific research is extremely prominent in the list of philanthropy’s claimed success stories, and the conceptual fit with philanthropy is strong.
  • The “bang for the buck” of funding or influencing scientific research could be extremely high, since new findings become public goods with potentially global effects.
  • Much of the Gates Foundation‘s current work is in the category of trying to develop new technologies aimed at helping people in the developing world, an approach that strikes us as potentially promising, and difficult to assess without a basic competence in funding scientific research.
  • In addition, even scientific research that is not aimed at helping the worst-off can have potentially huge flow-through effects. We have, in the past, made some preliminary attempts to investigate certain types of scientific research, and haven’t made much progress. We now recognize that – for reasons we will lay out below and in future posts – making serious traction in this area is going to be a very challenging long-term project.

Starting with a focus on life sciences (biology, medicine)

  • According to data we’ve pulled from a government survey on R&D funding at universities (details of the query are in the spreadsheet) (XLS), the total amount spent on (university-based) research in “biological sciences” and “medical sciences” is nearly equal to the amount spent on all other categories of research combined. This sort of research is also the most common focus (within scientific research) among today’s philanthropists.One could argue that this means we should focus somewhere else, with the reasoning that we should be looking for “uncrowded” areas. However,
    • “Heavily funded” isn’t synonymous with “overcrowded” – what matters is how much funding is in an area relative to how much room for more funding there is, and at this point we have no way of assessing the “room for more funding” for any type of scientific research until we get a better grasp on the basics.
    • When we know little enough about a type of philanthropy, there is some appeal to examining the most highly-funded areas, to get a sense of “what a highly-funded area looks like” and how other areas might look different if more funding came into them.
    • We would consider pursuing a meta-research focus, i.e., a focus on advocating for changes in research practice and infrastructure; if we did this, working in a well-funded area would mean more opportunity for leveraged impact.

Two separate questions

We’ve been working in parallel on two questions:

  1. Within life sciences, what are the best opportunities for funders?
  2. How does the “good accomplished per dollar” of life sciences funding compared to that of other giving options (such as LLIN distribution)?

In theory, we’d want to answer these in the order given, because one needs to know the best available giving opportunity within a category in order to assess that category against other categories we’ve assessed the best available giving opportunities for. However, we expect assessing #1 to be a very long-term project, so in the meantime we’ve done what we could to assess the state of the existing literature on #2. We’re now at a stopping point on both questions: we believe that moving further on #1 requires recruiting scientific advisors, and moving further on #2 would require commissioning (rather than just reviewing) research, which is something we wouldn’t be comfortable doing until after more progress on #1.

Future posts will discuss our progress on both.


  • Kris Zyp on December 26, 2013 at 6:59 pm said:

    My intuition would be to expect similar deviations (and thus opportunities) from broad market/donor efficiency found in direct contributions. That is, donors tend to be more likely to donate to near concerns than far concerns, leaving far concerns (particularly far geographical/cultural concerns, but temporal ones may apply) underfunded, with high ROI opportunities. Consequently, I would bet on research on infectious disease (with high prevalence in developing countries and low in developed) as being a good opportunity (and possibly climate adaptation research, if you want to bet on far temporal concerns).

    Of course RCTs on different types of aid interventions should also count as scientific research, but you already rank IPA pretty high, which is the most obvious target for funding RCTs.

  • Narain Bhatia on December 30, 2013 at 12:35 pm said:

    About me:
    I am socially active retired businessman. My daughter Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia r is a well known professor at MIT teaching life sciences and researching in this field… Her husband is also a professor at Harvard in similar field. After a successful business career I co-founded Nonprofit Net ten years ago where we teach smaller nonprofits how to succeed–at no cost to them. I have deep interest in effectiveness of philanthropy dollar–what it should fund and how nonprofits should be evaluated. In the field of life sciences, I have had many conversations with my daughter and her husband about their funding issues. I can share a few observations that might be of help to you.

    1. Funding Eco System:
    The main source of funding in this field is NIH, the National Institute of Health. The main source of research activities are the scientist’s labs. Most of the buildings housing the labs are donated by philanthropists like Koch Institute for Integrated Cancer Research at MIT with investment of about $400 million. The institutions employing the scientists have a very high overhead. For example for a scientist to receive $100 the grant must be $170 at MIT. Institutional overhead to support the occupancy, security, administration and infrastructure needs the $70; even that is not enough and large funds to the tune of billions of dollars must be raised every few years to build up institution’s endowment.

    2. Scientist’s dilemma:
    At individual scientist level the focus is on publishing new discoveries in peer reviewed journals, attending conferences, recruiting new bright students, upgrading labs, writing grants and keeping head above water. The mantra for survival is “publish or perish “. It is easy to see why commercialization of new findings often takes a back seat. The scientists also guard their research ideas to stay competitive thus collaboration, while absolutely necessary, is often avoided. Besides, most institutions do not want their nonprofit status to be jeopardized by subsidizing commercial activities in their labs so they have conflict of interest rules like what is commercial activity and how much time a scientist must spend on research or teaching–80% is not uncommon.

    3. Commercialization pickle:
    Because of FDA, the journey of discovery from lab to patient often takes ten or more years. Philanthropic initiatives in the field of Life Sciences are thus a long term bet on combined potential of the discovery, the scientist and the institution. Venture capitalists and big pharmaceutical firms surround the research institutions with varying degrees of success. The scientists are often marginalized in the successive funding rounds. Yet unless the scientific discoveries are commercialized the philanthropic success will elude everyone.

    You have an important goal and are asking important questions. There are some models of philanthropy in life sciences that do not micro-focus like NIH or commercial firms but only fund collaborative activities in very specific fields–betting that the results will come in the long run. Your model will undoubtedly turn out to be entirely unique. As I write this comment, I am thinking, what next step I could suggest?

    The first step, it seems to me, is to define what you would call success. Next I think you will have to educate yourself in this life sciences field. Finally, I think if you form a Scientific Advisory Council to educate you and advise you on shaping your philanthropic strategy for life sciences, you will significantly enhance your chances of success. You will need to pay them their opportunity cost of time–$5K to $8K per day—to get their attention. You may need to do it in two or three research hubs in order to get proper perspective. I envision a three to six month experiment; it will be well worth a good strategy as a reward. In my opinion the field is too complex to navigate alone.

    Your blog is not my place to give unsolicited advice, such as it may be. I apologize in advance if my remarks are off the board. Happy New year and I wish you the very best in your passionate quest to find the right answers to your questions.

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