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Partnership and Collaboration: As important for science funders as for scientists

Collaboration is the holy grail of science – sure, individual efforts can still bring big discoveries – but more and more, progress on complex problems requires collaboration where output of the whole is much greater than that of the sum of its parts.  In scientific research this has become an accepted fundamental – especially for big science… think CERN and the discovery of the Higgs boson, the Human Genome project or the recent discovery of gravitational waves emanating from the origin of the universe observed at the BICEP2 telescope on the South Pole; but also think groups of two or three scientists – e.g., a computational physicist collaborating with a biologist to gain a deeper understanding of how molecules come to life in a cell, or collaboration among a synthetic chemist, a materials scientist and a theoretician to produce a system that self-assembles to a new material with designed properties. Scientific progress is accelerated by collaboration and partnerships among scientists with complementary knowledge and skills. What can foundations learn from the successes of the most productive scientists they fund? 

Although its primary focus has been on its own programs for funding early career scientists doing basic research, RCSA has engaged in productive partnerships in the past – e.g., the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory partnering with several U.S. universities, Germany and Italy, and the Partners in Science high school teacher program in partnership with the M. J. Charitable Trust. During the past few years RCSA has made a concerted effort to form partnerships that leverage it resources and amplify its impact. While the majority of potential partnerships simply do not match our mission, strengths and resources, some do.  The key has been to stay focused on mission and strategically look for opportunities that organically grow from our strengths and those of our partners in a compelling and complementary way.   We have focused not only on our strengths, but considered our limitations as well – those areas where the expertise, influence and resources of partners complement our own – and, most importantly, where we share a mission.

Partnership Among Foundations to Increase Philanthropy for Basic Research

Recognizing a national crisis in the ability of federal agencies and industry to fund the most basic, early stage discovery research, six foundations – Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institutes, Kavli Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the Simons Foundation – formed the Science Philanthropy Alliance. The Alliance’s goal is to increase significantly philanthropic support for basic research. Without these relatively high-risk initial investments aimed at discovering fundamental knowledge, there is no arc of discovery leading to the innovations and technologies that underpin our future economic and physical wellbeing.  By harvesting the technological and economic benefits of past scientific discovery without re-investing a sufficient portion in ongoing discovery we are effectively eating the seed corn from which we would grow our future prosperity.  By aligning a group of foundations already committed to funding discovery research to speak with one voice and advocate for greater investment in scientific research by others, the Alliance has set a goal to increase funding by private philanthropy by $1B within five years and raise the visibility of this emerging crisis.  The Alliance’s efforts are focused on encouraging existing foundations, wealthy individuals and industry to commit more resources to basic research and bringing attention to the impending crisis that will follow if we fail to plant the seed corn of future discovery. By forming this partnership and speaking with a one voice, Alliance members strive to achieve a greater collective impact on their core mission of advancing scientific research than they could otherwise do individually.

Partnership Among Foundations to Discover Highly Imaginative Research Ideas

With the encouragement of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), six foundations – Burroughs Welcome Fund, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Kavli Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, The John Templeton Foundation and W. M. Keck Foundation – joined together to offer an “ideation competition” seeking original, highly creative ideas on what the next highest impact platform technology might be (e.g., STM, MRI, CCD, Fourier transform).  In this competition prize money is offered for the most creative solution and the submission of solutions is open to scientists worldwide.  This is essentially a means of “crowd-sourcing” idea generation to discover areas of high potential for research funding. This partnership provided RCSA an opportunity to test the concept of an ideation competition by sharing the costs and organizational efforts, and benefiting from the broad expertise of the participating foundations, without which it is unlikely that RCSA would have pursued this project.

Partnerships Emerging from Existing Programs

A core value of RCSA’s Cottrell Scholar (CS) program has been to provide seed funding for the most compelling research projects of early career faculty in research universities, and at the same time support and encourage their commitment to effective, innovative, best-practice science teaching. A recent addition to that program has been CS Collaborative Awards for projects aimed at STEM teaching to teams of Cottrell Scholars.  Several of these have led to impactful partnerships. 

One of the CS Collaborative Awards let to the development of the Chemistry New Faculty Workshop. The workshops are done in partnership with the American Chemical Society (ACS) and held in their offices in Washington, D.C., the second of which was offered in the summer of 2013. The workshops engage recently hired chemistry faculty at research universities with accomplished senior teacher-scholars and provide the new faculty with coaching on how to manage their time, build peer networks, develop new courses, find the most recent materials to support their teaching and teach large classes effectively using tested best practices. The workshops combine the resources, prestige and influence of the ACS with a cohort of Cottrell Scholars and others with extensive STEM teaching expertise, and funding from RCSA.  The workshops promise to have a huge impact on chemistry teaching in US academia over time as universities are populated with faculty with the workshop experience and related networking opportunities.

Another CS Collaborative Award has matched the common interest of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and a group of Cottrell Scholars in the measurement and definition of effective STEM teaching in universities.  AAU has recently engaged in a nation-wide project to assess and define effective STEM teaching. AAU has its greatest influence with university leaders – presidents, provosts and deans; while RCSA’s CS cohort (currently ~250 Cottrell Scholars nation-wide) brings a faculty perspective, experience and credibility to the project. This is a powerful combination because it partners the practical “boots on the ground” experiences, knowledge and perspectives of the faculty (Cottrell Scholars) with the institutional authority, resources and broader view of administrative leaders in focus on the common goal of understanding how to assess and reward effective science teaching.

Four years ago, RCSA launched Scialog – a program intended to combine funding of catalytic, early stage, inherently high-risk research in an area of compelling global need with idea-exchange, dialog and collaboration-building via a Scialog conference. The first Scialog focused on solar energy conversion to electricity and fuels and has been very successful in identifying and evaluating very early stage discovery research projects and in establishing new cross-disciplinary collaborations. 

In 2013 RCSA and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation began planning for a new Scialog at the intersection of computational and theoretical physics with biology.  Both foundations believe that this area is prime for significant advancement in understanding how the collection of molecules found within cells aggregate to form catalytic surfaces and functioning organelles, how they signal and network and, ultimately, how molecules come to life. The Moore Foundation has deep expertise and experience in funding the biological sciences and physics; RCSA has experience in funding physics and bio-physics, and in organizing the Scialog Conferences in a manner that facilitates the necessary dialog and collaboration-building across disciplines. Not only is the project mission-centered for both foundations, but it integrates our collective expertise and resources in a manner that promises to produce results in this important emerging area of research that neither of us could achieve alone.

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