The Research Funder Behind a Big Campus Neuroscience Gift in the Midwest

Huge biomedical gifts are flying these days, and the latest goes to the University of Iowa, thanks to a longstanding relationship with an Iowa-based foundation and its surprisingly large medical and scientific grant program.

A $45 million donation to the school will establish a neuroscience institute, including labs, professorships and research program funds. It’s the latest in the ongoing flurry of alumni and other academic research grants, as basically every school in the country plugs away to raise billions under funding constraints. In Iowa’s case, the school has now surpassed a $1.7 billion goal as its fundraising campaign comes to a close. 

The recent neuroscience grant is one of many that have gone to schools and other research institutions across the country in a time of high activity and promise in this field. It’s been one of the most popular and passionate subjects in the current philanthropic boom, as hugely wealthy donors like Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos and Sanford Weill have prioritized it, often with personal motivation. According to the dean of the college of medicine, the university simply proposed a number of programs for funding, and the foundation went with neuroscience, believing it to be the “last frontier in terms of science.” 

While research gifts don’t always track with a donor's loyalty to a particular region or school, this one most certainly does, as the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust’s medical and scientific grants go almost entirely to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, and the University of Illinois (where Carver earned a degree in chemistry).

Roy Carver, who passed away in 1981, was one of Iowa’s wealthiest residents after making his money selling tire-retreading material. After his death, the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust was founded with interests in education, youth, and research, and is run by a family-led board. The foundation reports assets of more than $300 million, and annual grantmaking of around $15 million. 

The trust and Carver and his wife Lucille are now collectively the largest donors to the University of Iowa, having given $195 million to date. In fact, the school’s College of Medicine was named after the couple after they committed more than $90 million. 

Other recent research grantmaking has gone toward equipment such as an advanced DNA sequencing system, new lab facilities, faculty positions, and support for individual research projects


The Carver gift has a couple of hallmarks common to big biomedical philanthropy. For one, it’s interdisciplinary. It’s typical for large university donors to establish new centers that will pool expertise from multiple fields. In this case, biologists, computer scientists, neuropsychologists, engineers, chemists and others will take part. 

The gift is also being used as an anchor, coupled with the recent hire of leading researcher Ted Abel from the University of Pennsylvania, to draw additional prestige and recruit new faculty. 

In that sense, although on a much smaller scale, there’s some similarity to the recent gift from Phil Knight to the University of Oregon—it’s planting a seed to help a public university grow something that will make it competitive and enticing. 

Related: What Happens When a Public University Lands Game Changing Gifts?