Background and Imperatives for Funding Basic Science and Medical Research
The world is increasingly moving towards an innovation economy, driven by exponential progress in science and technology (S&T). Countries like China seized this opportunity early in the 1990s, revitalizing their S&T ecosystem through systematic reforms and programs. It is no surprise that today, China rubs its shoulders with and is even ahead of the United States in areas such as artificial intelligence.
To be a global leader, India needs to be at the forefront of new science and technological knowledge. We have the economic size, the talent pool, the large market size and a vibrant start-up ecosystem to both invest in research and to translate S&T knowledge into social value.
However, at present, we are lagging in research output and intellectual property creation:
India spends a mere ~0.6% of its GDP on scientific R&D, while the average R&D spend of OECD countries, including China, is 2.3%, with countries like Israel and South Korea spending well over 4% of GDP
We rank #9 in our research impact (citations), while the US and China rank #1 and #2, respectively
Our disruptive research output is 17x lower than the US’s and 7x lower than China’s
There is only one Indian institute in the global top 200 and only two in the global top 500, as per research rankings for 2020.
Juxtaposed in this backdrop along with tremendous wealth creation, rising inequalities and global challenges (like climate change and the COVID pandemic), there is a strong imperative for philanthropy to revive the S&T agenda in India.
Philanthropy can play an important role in shaping India’s S&T ecosystem, with a higher level of risk tolerance supporting proposed scientific ideas well before those ideas are sufficiently developed to earn government support. This is exemplified by the significant role that philanthropy has played in the USA in supporting science, technology and medicine over the last two centuries. Over four broad epochs of American history (viz. agriculture, industrialization, manufacturing and the current epoch of digital information), philanthropic giving has helped to create and support a system of science, technology and medical research that remains unmatched in scale and quality.
In fact, philanthropists currently contribute support for 44% of basic science research conducted at American universities and nonprofit research institutes.
The Wellcome Trust, a UK-based biomedical research charity, one of the largest nongovernment funders of science in the world, provides research funding in more than 70 countries to find solutions to mental health, infectious diseases and climate change.
Likewise, wealth creators in India should take the agency and leadership that is required to transform the research ecosystem in India, with issues ranging from health disparities to climate change to far-reaching innovations.
How can philanthropy support science, technology and medical research?
What will philanthropic funders need to get right in order to have a positive impact on scientific enterprise and to help move society toward greater collective well-being?
To achieve this dual goal of positive scientific and societal impact, philanthropists could consider four broad approaches to basic science and medical research ecosystem: seeding new fields of research or new research institutions, supporting early career researchers, fostering inter-disciplinary research, and aligning with big missions/initiatives of the government.
Approach 1: Seeding new fields of research, adopting a long-term view to fund innovations
Philanthropists can establish research entities themselves, giving them the ability to directly shape the direction of research and ensure that these new organizational structures reflect their own interests and values. A related approach is to build and maintain instruments and research infrastructure for the scientific community in order to change and direct research practices.
Philanthropic funders also need to balance the desire to see a near-term impact from research they support with the need to advance speculative basic research that might only come to fruition years or even decades in the future. A good example of the simultaneous importance of near-term and long-term goals is the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine in the US. This was made possible by the conceptual framework laid by philanthropic support for basic biomedical research in preceding decades while also being instrumental in assisting with the vaccine’s distribution and rollout.
A worthy role model in India is the Mazumdar Shaw Center for Translational Research, set up by Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. More recently, in February 2022, Mindtree co-founders Subroto Bagchi and NS Parthasarathy, along with their spouses, Susmita and Radha, made a single largest private grant of Rs 425 crore to IISc for setting up a medical school and 800-bed multi-speciality hospital. The medical school will promote R&D at the confluence of basic sciences, engineering and medical science, strengthening the fields of clinical research.
Approach 2: Supporting early-career researchers
Advancement of science thrives on vibrant, inclusive and diverse communities of excellent researchers, communities that are continually renewed with emerging talent. This requires attracting and retaining scientists from different corners of society.
In the US, philanthropic programs supporting researchers include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Program, the Schmidt Science Fellows program, and the Sloan Research Fellowships. In India, this approach is exemplified by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
Approach 3: Funding inter-disciplinary research
One of the most important roles that foundations can play is to support research that draws on more than one discipline because work that spans disciplines in new ways is difficult to slot into existing categories typically supported by government funding. For instance, The Kavli Foundation supports a set of research institutes around the world where scientists apply advanced computational, imaging, and visualization techniques in disciplines as varied as astrophysics, theoretical physics, neuroscience, and nanoscience.
Approach 4: Aligning with big missions of the government
Another approach is to consider the possibilities of philanthropic-public partnerships as a way of making scientific progress more rapidly and more coherently. The BRAIN Initiative, launched in 2013 in the US, grew out of a unique example of philanthropy partnering with the government by catalyzing the effort at its earliest stage.
The Centre for Brain Research, set up by Kris Gopalakrishnan in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is a great example of this approach. In fact, the IISc is also an exemplar, given its genesis in 1909 as a partnership between Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the Mysore royal family and the government.
The Science Philanthropy Alliance brings to life the collective impact of philanthropic interventions. From its inception in 2013, when six private foundations came together, the alliance has grown to 30 members whose combined endowments are estimated at $110 billion—a measure of the potential benefit to science from the philanthropic sector.
If Indian philanthropists turn their focus to some or all the dimensions discussed in this paper, we hope that when people turn the lens to look back 50 years hence, science philanthropy in India will have realized its extraordinary potential.