Science Research

Science research is one of those giving spaces in which donors often take the lead. Rarely, if ever, are big checks written for general purposes and even more rarely are these gifts completely unrestricted.

Here at IP, we have reviewed major science research giving by individual donors over the past few years and are analyzing new gifts nearly every week. This guide explores who's making the big donations, what schools are getting the money, and what strings are attached to how the money is spent.

Who’s Giving?

The list of people supporting scientific research at institutions of higher education nationwide is dominated by alumni and professors. The disciplines to which these donors are giving, and giving big, are as varied as the individuals themselves. There isn’t one striking pattern of any specific discipline receiving more contributions than another. And just because a donor is among the recipient institution's alumni, it doesn’t mean that he or she graduated with a science-related degree.

Jim Clark is one example. Among his many accomplishments, Clark cofounded Netscape. He recently gave $60 million to Stanford toward the continuing support of "interdisciplinary research at the intersection of life sciences, technology, and engineering.” The money is earmarked for the James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, which was established in 1999 when Clark gave $90 million donation for its construction. Clark himself is not a Stanford grad — he attended Tulane, the University of New Orleans, and finally the University of Utah where he earned his doctorate. However, back in the early 1980s, Clark taught at Stanford. Though his time in academia was brief, Clark remains highly involved with Stanford's Clark Center.

Similarly, husband and wife Michael Moritz and Harriet Heyman gave $30 million to the University of California, San Francisco. Moritz, chairman of Sequoia Capital, attended Oxford and Wharton, and Heyman, an author and former editor at The New York Times, volunteers in the UCSF lab. The couple’s gift support a fellows program in the university’s basic science department, which includes biology, biochemistry and neuroscience Ph.D. programs. A portion of the gift is also earmarked for graduate students’ tuition and living expenses.

Arizona State University in 2017 announced a $12 million gift from Lois and Charlie O’Brien, a couple of entomologists in their 80s who are giving the university their world-class insect collection for scientific research. The couple are also endowing professorships in the university’s School of Life Sciences devoted to insect systematics, the process of identifying and naming new species.  

Who’s Getting?

Universities both big and small are the hands-down winners in chase for big contributions to pay for science research.

Large universities that lure $1 million-plus donors to support scientific research include Stanford, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania. Smaller institutions such as the University of Puget Sound and University of Dayton have also reported impressive donations in this giving space.

Louis Simpson and his wife Kimberly Querrey recently gave $92 million to support a new 12-story research hub at Northwestern that will be named for the couple. The research center will provide space for the study of neurodegenerative disorders as well as cancer, heart disease and genetics.

William and Flora McCormick gave the University of Puget Sound $2 million to endow a chair of biophysics bearing their name. William McCormick is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Texas at Austin and a Duke University alumnus. But the McCormicks have strong connections to the Puget Sound institution. William McCormick is the third-generation member of his family to serve as a trustee at the university, and the couple's son is an alumnus.

The University of Dayton also received a large bequest from Robert Schuellein, an alumnus and former biology professor who died in 2011. Schuellein’s $2.5 million gift will be used to endow a chair in biology to support faculty research.

What are the Gifts for?

In the science research space, most big individual donations go toward programs of study rather than capital campaigns, new construction, or renovations. Often donors like to give big money to support faculty endowments. For instance, Peter and Bonnie McCausland gave $10 million to the University of South Carolina, designating $5 million to be used for the McCausland Faculty Fellows program. This program will endow up to 20 new fellowships annually in multiple disciplines including marine sciences, biological sciences, and biomedicines, among others.

Among the science research donations we examined, Michael Moritz and Harriet Heyman wrote the only check for Ph.D. student endowments. At $30 million, though, this gift is a substantial portion of all recent gifts to science research endowments.

A handful of donations were designated for the general support of a department or program, such as Clark’s $60 million gift to Stanford for interdisciplinary research. Rick and Loan Hill also wrote a $6.5 million check to the University of Illinois at Chicago to support its bioengineering department.

How the Gifts Happen

Multimillion-dollar gifts to scientific research are typically the work of university deans and presidents. Asking people to part with this kind of money requires a relationship-building period, which can last anywhere from months to years.

Many scientific research donations are designated for a specific discipline like biology or medicinal chemistry. This specificity tends to warrant a great deal of expertise, which is why the deans of related schools often become heavily involved in the relationship-building process with donors.

What Strings Are Attached

Endowed chairs and professorships are typically named after the person or family making the gift, as are new or completely renovated facilities making science research possible. However, these naming rights don’t seem to be at the request of the donors. More often, the institution's board of directors, senior fundraisers, and other higher-ups decide to offer naming rights and then decide how big gifts must be to rename a building or program.

Insights and Tips

As in other areas of individual giving to colleges and universities, alumni make a strong showing in contributing to scientific research. Add professors to the mix and you have the majority of donors in this giving space covered. The average person making a big gift for science research graduated in 1964, often with a degree unrelated to science, which opens the door to potential donors from many varied professions.

John and Rita Feik, for example, awarded $1 million to the University of Texas at San Antonio for  a chair in medicinal chemistry and natural drug discovery. John Feik bounced around a few different majors including pre-med and chemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington, eventually earning a degree in finance. He went on to establish DFB Pharmaceuticals where he is chief executive.

Professors tend to give big to their specific area of study and expertise, and other donors in science research give out of keen interest. Learning about donors' scientific interests and passions and finding a way to link them to compelling research projects is the key to landing big-dollar donations in this giving space.