“No Bigger Challenge for Our Planet.” Behind a Campus Gift for Energy Science

Stefan Sorean/shutterstock

Stefan Sorean/shutterstock

News out of Pennsylvania suggests that universities looking to capitalize on the STEM gold rush may want to take a closer look at the emerging field of energy science.

The field, which explores the scientific and technological problems related to energy, just received an impressive stamp of approval in the form of P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos’ $50 million gift to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences. The gift is earmarked for a new science center that “will be an incubator for scientists and engineers to engage in cross-disciplinary work and train postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates as future leaders in the field.”

The gift, which contributes to Penn’s four-year, $4.1 billion “Power of Penn Campaign: Advancing Knowledge for Good,” is the largest in the history of the School of Arts and Sciences. It’s also a surprisingly rare example of higher ed climate philanthropy. I’ll explore why this may be the case momentarily. But first, let’s turn our attention to the donors.

Vagelos, who graduated from Penn in 1950 before going on to receive a medical degree from Columbia University, is the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Merck & Co. Vagelos left Merck due to—and I’m quoting Forbes here—the company’s “archaic mandatory chief executive retirement age policy” in 1994. He assumed the role of chairman of the board at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals a year later, a position the 89-year-old Vagelos still holds.

Vagelos served as chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees from 1995 to 1999, and he is a former member of the Penn Arts & Sciences’ Board of Overseers and the founding Chair of the Committee for Undergraduate Financial Aid. Diana T. Vagelos is a former overseer of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

With a net worth of roughly $1.3 billion, Vagelos has provided extensive support to his alma maters. In 2010, he and his wife donated $50 million to the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons towards the construction of a new building named the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center.

Seven years later, he donated $250 million to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, much of which funds an endowment that will ultimately allow the school to underwrite its student financial aid. He said he hoped the gift will free students to pursue careers in family medicine, pediatrics, research and other fields that are less lucrative than the top-paying specialties.

Add it all up, and the Vageloses have given Columbia’s medical school roughly $450 million over the years.

The Next Logical Step

The couple’s longtime support of Penn Arts & Sciences includes several science-related programs, undergraduate scholarships, endowed professorships, and the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology. Established in 2016, the institute aims to make Penn home to one of the premier energy research and technology centers in the nation by addressing the challenge of “providing the energy that society needs in a way that respects the rights and interests of future generations.”

The institute’s research priorities are “built upon the recognition that a deliberate transition from the current energy status to a sustainable future will require a period where many energy sources are necessary.” Stated focus areas include sustainable food-energy-water systems, optimal use of natural gas, and renewable utilization of non-food biomass.

Given the couple’s support for the institute, their recent gift was the next logical step. “Energy research has been important to me and to Diana for years,” says Vagelos. “We’ve seen students and faculty doing extraordinary work and our hope is that this new building will provide the home and resources that this effort needs to create solutions.”

Commenting on the gift, Penn’s Vijay Kumar said, “There is no bigger challenge for our planet than the creation, storage, and conversion of energy in a clean, efficient and cost-effective way.”

Roy and Diana Vagelos aren’t the only donors interested in energy. We’ve reported on how the software billionaire Tom Siebel has taken on this issue, backing a funding and convening initiative called the Siebel Energy Institute. Many top philanthropists—including Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, John Arnold, and Michael Bloomberg—also support Breakthrough Energy, an impact investing fund created a few years ago to invest in “new technologies to find better, more efficient and cheaper energy sources.” In addition, the Energy Foundation has long received foundation money “to promote the transition to a sustainable energy future by advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy.”

Still, the overall picture of philanthropic support for work on energy specifically and climate change broadly is pretty discouraging given what’s at stake.

“A growing mountain of research suggests that climate change is likely to aggravate every problem now confronting humanity: hunger, gender inequality, ethnic conflict, unemployment—you name it,” wrote Inside Philanthropy’s Tate Williams back in 2015. “So you'd think, by now, that this existential threat would be a top priority of philanthropy. You'd be wrong. Less than 2 percent of all philanthropic dollars go to the cause, and much of it comes from just a handful of funders.”

While foundations have lately upped their giving on climate change a bit, not much has otherwise changed. Williams floated various theories explaining funder inaction in this space. Some may believe other funders are on the case. Some have an inherent aversion to risk. Others may believe that the fears surrounding climate change are overblown. Meanwhile, the funders who do give to this cause tend to support a narrow band of approaches and solutions. For instance, a 2018 research paper by Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at Northeastern University, cited a lack of funder support for nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and geoengineering.

Gauging Demand

We see a similar lack of support for climate change and energy-related initiatives if we zoom in on the higher ed space. A search of the term “energy science” on Philanthropy News Digest’s gift database yields four results—including the Penn gift—in higher ed dating back to 2013. A search on “climate change” yielded only 38 results dating back to 2003.

Alumni disinterest on this issue is doubly vexing when once considers that infatuation with STEM remains strong. With millions of dollars flowing to STEM programs all over the country, many donors don't want their beloved alma maters to be left behind. They also recognize the need for rural areas and regions historically reliant on heavy manufacturing to embrace the “new economy.” Clean energy and solar and wind power generation should, in theory, be a part of this mix, and yet we’ve seen very few gifts like the one out of Pennsylvania flowing to schools in the heartland—or even coastal enclaves, for that matter.

One of the big themes we’re seeing in higher ed philanthropy right now finds alumni with deep professional experience making a big bet on an emerging niche field and positioning their alma mater for what lies ahead. And so it’s possible that STEM-friendly funders are holding back because they’ve yet to see evidence suggesting there will be substantial demand for the relatively nascent field of “energy sciences” or other climate change-related skill sets.

Edward Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, analyzed the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment forecasts and concluded that in the decade ending in 2024, 73 percent of STEM job growth will be in computer occupations. Only 3 percent will be in the physical sciences and 3 percent in the life sciences. “Energy sciences” wasn’t included in Lazowska’s analysis, but intuition suggests there should be demand for these skills as the U.S. transitions towards clean energy and a greener economy.

Then again, intuition can only get you so far. It takes reputable funders and big, fact checks to add legitimacy to a burgeoning research area. This is why the Vagelos’ gift is so intriguing. P. Roy Vagelos has written more than 100 scientific papers. He backed creation of the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology three years ago with the goal of making Penn a leader in energy research. He and his wife’s $50 million gift to Penn is a crystal-clear indication they believe there is a bright future for energy science.

The gift is an encouraging example of donors helping expand the range of approaches to climate change, as well as the kinds of organizations involved in meeting this challenge.

In a 2018 piece in Inside Philanthropy, guest contributors Rachel Prizker and Ted Nordhaus, drawing heavily from Matthew Nisbet’s findings, laid out a roadmap for climate funders moving forward. The authors encouraged big climate funders to “make sustained commitments to supporting new institutions that can speak to very different sorts of constituencies and bring very different policy priorities to the table."

By creating a new institute back in 2016 and funding a new research center at Penn, the Vageloses are certainly “supporting new institutions” and focusing on a “different” policy priority that is energy science. Penn President Amy Gutmann agrees. “Roy and Diana are extraordinarily strong, prescient, and generous supporters,” she said.