Unscientific Philanthropy

It took all my strength to keep the top of my head from blowing off while having lunch with a senior academic scientist who also advises a few private funders supporting research in the neurosciences and neurological disease. What lit the fuse? Besides his treating me like I emerged from some dark cocoon only yesterday? It was that nothing said did not come straight from a decades old play book of the clichés, tired old lines, or semi-truths scientists have traditionally used when talking to donors. Language I assiduously worked to eliminate in a quest for more honest and authentic communication among researchers and reps from philanthropies. Sadly, funders still buy this stuff. My problem with this kind of dialogue, of course, is that I am a scientist. And I am a scientist that brings a scientific way of thinking into philanthropy. What does that mean? I question common wisdom assertions, I ask for data, I challenge the status quo, and I know what really goes on in the lab. Scientists talking to donors, particularly donors interested in diseases such as the topic at lunch, neurological disorders, tend to use a few well-trod pitches: 1) the need for collaboration, 2) the need for multi-disciplinary approaches, and the real point 3)the need for more money so that more of the same can be done. And it is always more of the same no matter how much “novel” lipstick is applied. To get something different you have to do something different. The reason we are not making progress against neurological diseases is not because there is not “enough.” It is not a question of quantity. It is not a simple problem of scale. The other problem is that “pitches” are always about the enterprise. Growing the field, the institution, the department, the lab. Pitches are always resource grabs – what is really desired is the opportunity for defenders of the status quo to control resources and direct it in ways that benefit a particular club. To be fair – they often truly believe that their club is pursuing the right line of research because it is comprised of the brightest, the elite, the prestigious, and the deserving. They are right. The difficulty is – the problem gets lost – the unique opportunity provided by small targeted investment gets lost – the ability to look at a problem in a harsh, critical, unsympathetic way gets lost. Philanthropic leaders interested in advancing science are NOT doing the scientific community any favors if they keep going back to the standard bearers in a field expecting new ideas. It is not possible to lead by following. It is not possible to lead without rolling up your sleeves and working hard. Leading means reading, questioning, thinking, exploring, and challenging. It means not getting to hang out with nobel laureates and the smartest guy in the room. It means risking that you will not be admired and liked for not rocking the boat. It means being scientific about science.