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Science Philanthropy and Societal Responsibility: A Match Made for the 21st Century

Written by Evan S. Michelson

Philantropy and the future of science and technology

The overlapping crises the world has experienced in 2020 make clear that resources from multiple sectors — government, private sector, and philanthropy — need to be deployed at multiple scales to better address societal challenges. In particular, science philanthropy has stepped up, helping to advance COVID-19 vaccine development, identify solutions to climate change, and make the tools of scientific inquiry more widely available.

As I write in my recently published book, Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology (Routledge, 2020), this linkage between science philanthropy and societal responsibility is one that needs to be continually strengthened and advanced as global challenges become more intertwined and as the relationship between science and society becomes more complex. In fact, science philanthropies have an important, yet often overlooked, role in raising the profile of the societal responsibility of research. One way to better understand the role science philanthropies can and should play in society is to draw on the responsible research and innovation (RRI) framework, a concept developed by scholars from fields such as science & technology policy and science & technology studies. Depending on its configuration, the RRI framework has roughly three core dimensions: anticipatory research that is forward-looking and in search of new discoveries, deliberative and inclusive approaches that better engage and integrate members of the public with the research process, and the adoption of reflexive and responsive dispositions by funders (along with those conducting research) to ensure that societal and public values are accounted for and integrated at the outset of a research effort.

Philanthropies that fund research can more explicitly consider this perspective — even just a little bit — when making their funding decisions, thereby helping to better infuse whatever support they provide for individuals, institutions, and networks with attention to broader societal concerns. For instance, doing so not only highlights the need for science philanthropies to identify and support high-quality early career researchers who are pursuing new avenues of science and technology research, but it also raises considerations of diversity, equity, and inclusion as equally important decision-making criteria for funding. The RRI framework also suggests that foundations working in science and technology should not only help to bring together networks of individual scholars and their host institutions, but that the horizon of such collaborations should be actively extended to include practitioners, decision-makers, users, and communities affected by such investigations. Philanthropies can take a further step and reflexively apply these perspectives to how they operate, how they set their strategies and grantmaking priorities, or even in how they directly manage scientific research infrastructure, which some philanthropic institutions have even begun to do within their own institutions.

There is much still to be explore about science philanthropies and their relationship to society at large. While each institution is bespoke and features its own unique way of working, much can be learned when examining how this collective set of organizations looks to have an impact on society. The more that science philanthropies work to integrate societal responsibility into everything they do, the more they will be able to shape the future of science and technology in a meaningful and productive way.

Evan S. Michelson is a Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and author of the recently published book Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology. All views expressed here are wholly his own and do not reflect those of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation or any of its grantees or partners. Thanks to permission granted by Routledge and the Taylor & Francis Group, portions of this blog post have been excerpted and reproduced from Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology, available at




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