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Philantropy is our government, now: How to Fund Your Great Scientific Idea

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Since Congress decided to cut science funding to all but matters of national security, many of us in the environmental field have existed in the new world of science funding–Foundations and Charitable Giving. While one might make the case that protecting the environment is in fact a matter of national security, our elected representatives disagree and sliced funding to climate change, political science, and education first. But they’ve also constructed a tax code favorable to private donors and foundations supporting science, sometimes because they really like the idea, they see future payoffs from their investment, or because they need the tax writeoff. The problem with these sources of private money is that they’re not as easy to discover as some of those public sources once were, and often require developing a personal relationship with the family owning the endowment. After polling the environmental science community, here’s some tips and tricks for finding and courting money that have set up some fantastic labs for others. Learn from their success.

Know the Next Big Thing

There are fads amongst the problems that need to be solved, and any successful research lab has at least one toe in the water of the subject at the top of the publicity agenda. For ocean topics, for a long while this was charismatic endangered species like whales and turtles. Once we realized we’d done as much as we could in this arena, other subjects started getting attention. For the foundations who take on these issues, they want to be seen at the forefront of an issue, not the tenth batter up, so the field is a constantly shifting landscape and the pace of that shifting hastens each year. Remember when citizen science was the next big promise for marine research? That it offered cheap, high quality data covering large spatial scales collected by the good graces of volunteers? People loved to suggest starting citizen science projects, and it solidified the institutional landscape we see today with professional associations and research institutions designed around maximizing the promise of citizen science. That all happened within the space of a few years and some large investments by the Packard and Bechtel foundations. But once something is institutionalized, it’s time for the foundations to move on to the Next Big Thing.

Roles for the Expert

The problems at the root of the fad are most likely truly devilish, but make sure that there’s at least a few subject experts on both sides of the table. Foundations and venture capitalists have a tendency to invest in things because it sounds great and promising, but often have little background to actually make that evaluation. Since the basis of your relationship will be around the subject at hand, it’s important to have a common language with which to discuss the details. Back in the early days of venture capital investment in science, the biomedical science reaped huge benefits of investments in medical technology, diagnostic tools, and other “disruptive” inventions. While a small handful of these eventually made it through clinical trials and into the marketplace to help patients, a great many became ‘unicorns’ – highly valued in the funding community with little scientific chance of completion (and sometime even knowingly based on fraudulent information). The limitations of genetic testing were often overlooked, as well as components of human behavior and technology access that limited the utility of new medical technologies. The ocean community has much to learn from the biomedical field (remember our epic fail with cleaning up ocean plastics?), as in many cases, something that feels too-good-to-be true is and that only spoils the future relationship between funder and scientist.

Spend Money to Make Money

Back in the days of big government grants, it was common practice and even a point of jokes to use the grant money to make sure you had preliminary data for the next thing.  While this practice existed almost entirely under-the-table, in today’s funding atmosphere it’s a common and expected form of practice. With the advent of the XPrize in 1996 to drive space exploration forward, many other foundations have warmed up to the idea that offering a very large cash prize for a completed product or solution is the most effective form of science funding. As a scientist, though, that means you need to find and raise starter capital first, before you can start playing in the big leagues. Once you win a big prize, your lab will be well-funded and recognized for years to come, but those early years can be tough. However, there is hope: while most of the big prize winners come from well-funded institutions, every once in a while there’s a team from a high school or small island developing nation that blows everyone away with the strength of their idea. Plus, second and third prize winners (or winners of sub-categories) still take home some cash so it’s worth getting in the game early.

Play the Long Game

Remember that just as you – the scientist – are human, so are the foundation managers and venture capitalists. Science is and always has been a social venture where some of the best work is done on a napkin at the bar. As humans with a lot of money, they also have enormous control over what subjects get research attention and who rises to the top of their field. Early on, it’s either luck or good flexibility that can bring you into the limelight of the Next Big Thing. But past your early career, a suggestion of yours over beer can create the Next Big Thing and put you right at the center of the activity. Just as mentors told you in graduate school that side projects are important, your tinkering in new subject areas or new developments can best position you to be critical to the next scientific campaign. Be your own cheerleader of these ideas. Learn how to speak to the press, or help create a TV show, podcast, or game that showcases your topic and your work. Since foundation managers and venture capitalists are responsive to the zeitgeist of the general public, it’s important that you are too.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.