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Bellagio Conference: The Knowledge Ecosystem

On March 18, 2015, Dr. Fanton moderated a session at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference on Lake Como in Northern Italy. Dr. Fanton appeared at the invitation of Ken Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Social Affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Director of the Scholarly Knowledge Project on the private foundation component of what Dr. Prewitt, calls “the knowledge ecosystem.”

In his opening remarks, Dr. Fanton discussed the desire for short-term, measurable results in the grant-making of private foundations, as well as the need to build research capacity and scholarly infrastructure in the developing world and closed societies.

During my ten years as president of the MacArthur Foundation, I thought a lot about how foundations can stimulate and sustain individual creativity and curiosity-driven research. MacArthur is well known for its so-called genius grants, offering $500,000 over five years with no strings attached to exceptionally creative and productive individuals. But the foundation did much more, which I will share with you in a moment.

The American Academy’s work is deeply concerned about the future of scholarly knowledge, as made particularly clear in Restoring the Foundation, our report on science and technology research policy. I read with particular interest the papers of Wilhelm Krull (Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation) and Bernhard Lorentz (former President and CEO of Stiftung Mercator) exploring what it takes to establish a culture of creativity and the role of foundations in the production of scholarly knowledge. The American Academy’s concerns resonate with Wilhelm’s observation that “in almost all of Europe, we currently too often pursue a ‘we don’t trust you, we know better, and we want results now’ kind of approach, which extinguishes small flames of creativity, and certainly prevents them from turning into strong fires of transformative research and scientific innovation.”

Introducing a panel discussion on the Academy’s Restoring the Foundation at Duke a couple of weeks ago, I quoted Nobel Laureate and Academy Fellow Robert Lefkowitz, who remarked just last year: “There’s a current problem in biomedical research. The emphasis is on doing things which are not risky. To have a grant proposal funded, you have to propose something and then present what is called preliminary data, which is basically evidence that you’ve already done what you’re proposing to do. If there’s any risk involved, then your proposal won’t be funded.”

Bernhard speaks to that issue, explaining that private foundations “have more than ever the duty to do things differently than the publicly financed grant making system.” He continues: “Foundations can trust in a return of their investment without being accountable for this. They don’t need to narrow down their investments to a standardized set of reporting or results. And yet they can trust in an excellent return. Because that’s what foundations have always been good at: identifying outstanding individuals and giving them liberty to achieve results in their own pace and their own methods. My argument is that this strength remains indispensable and is even more needed for scholarly knowledge as a public good in a globalized world.”

With that said, I think it is a legitimate worry that many private foundations, at least in the United States, have become overly concerned with impact and short-term measurable results. At MacArthur, I tried to strike a balance, setting measurable goals in fields like global conservation or affordable housing in the United States, but also putting aside funds for new initiatives, like the development of the field of law and neuroscience. And we invested in building research institutions through large unrestricted grants to places like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Budget and Priorities. In addition to the genius grants, MacArthur supported over two thousand individual scholars in broad fields like peace and security and population. In all, about 20 percent of MacArthur’s budget went to support research, and not just in the United States.

Foundations in wealthy countries have the ability—I would say, obligation—to build research capacity and scholarly infrastructure in the developing world and, where possible, in closed societies. At MacArthur, we were involved heavily in strengthening research capacity at universities in countries like Russia and Nigeria, spending over $100 million in each. We joined with other foundations in supporting the Africa Economic Research Consortium. In Nigeria, we asked the universities what they most needed, rather than telling them what we thought they should have.

In his memo introducing this session, Ken Prewitt concludes, “the foundation sector has no responsibility (and generally no capacity) to scan the entire landscape of scholarship, giving systematic attention to how pieces fit together, and, as necessary, adding any missing pieces. Each foundation may scan with respect to its own, necessarily limited portfolio, but whether the portfolios across the sector aggregate to a comprehensive strategy across the landscape of scholarship is doubtful.”

We might begin by identifying the “missing pieces” in the scholarly landscape and where there are connections that foundations might help make. I would like to come out of this session with a half-dozen specific recommendations that we might address to the foundation community.

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