Jul 2, 2022
In this conversation, Adam Falk and I talk about running research programs with impact over long timescales, creating new fields, philanthropic science funding, and so much more.
Adam is the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which was started by the eponymous founder of General Motors and has been funding science and education efforts for almost nine decades.
They’ve funded everything from iPython Notebooks to the Wikimedia foundation to an astronomical survey of the entire sky. If you’re like me, their name is familiar from the acknowledgement part of PBS science shows.
Before becoming the president of the Sloan Foundation, Adam was the president of Williams College and a high energy physicist focused on elementary particle physics and quantum field theory. His combined experience in research, academic administration, and philanthropic funding give him a unique and fascinating perspective on the innovation ecosystem. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
- How do you measure success in science? [00:01:31]
- Thinking about programs on long timescales [00:05:27]
- How does the Sloan Foundation decide which programs to do? [00:08:08]
- Sloan's Matter to Life Program [00:12:54]
- How does the Sloan Foundation think about coordination? [00:18:24]
- Finding and incentivizing program directors [00:22:32]
- What should academics know about the funding world and what should the funding world know about academics? [00:28:03]
- Grants and academics as the primary way research happens [00:33:42]
- Problems with grants and common grant applications [00:44:49]
- Addressing the criticism of philanthropy being inefficient because it lacks market mechanisms [00:47:16]
- Engaging with the idea that people who create value should be able to capture that value [00:53:05]
In this conversation, Adam Falk, and I talk about running research programs with impact over long timescales, creating new fields, philanthropic science funding, and so much more. Adam is the president of the Alfred P Sloan foundation, which was started by the eponymous founder of general motors. And has been funding science and education efforts for almost nine decades. They funded everything from IP.
I fond [00:01:35] notebooks to Wikimedia foundation. To an astronomical survey of the entire sky. If you're like me, their name is familiar from the acknowledgement part of PBS science shows. Before becoming the president of the Sloan foundation. Adam was the president of Williams college and I high energy physicist focused on elementary particle physics in quantum field theory.
His combined experience in research. Uh, Academic administration and philanthropic funding give him a unique and fascinating perspective on the innovation ecosystem i hope you enjoy this as much as i did
[00:02:06] Ben: Let's start with like a, sort of a really tricky thing that I'm, I'm myself always thinking about is that, you know, it's really hard to like measure success in science, right?
Like you, you know, this better than anybody. And so just like at, at the foundation, how do you, how do you think about success? Like, what is, what does success look like? What is the difference between. Success and failure mean to
[00:02:34] Adam: you? [00:02:35] I mean, I think that's a, that's a really good question. And I think it's a mistake to think that there are some magic metrics that if only you are clever enough to come up with build them out of citations and publications you could get some fine tune measure of success.
I mean, obviously if we fund in a scientific area, we're funding investigators who we think are going to have a real impact with their work individually, and then collectively. And so of course, you know, if they're not publishing, it's a failure. We expect them to publish. We expect people to publish in high-impact journals, but we look for broader measures as well if we fund a new area.
So for example, A number of years ago, we had a program in the microbiology of the built environment, kind of studying all the microbes that live in inside, which turns out to be a very different ecosystem than outside. When we started in that program, there were a few investigators interested in this question.
There weren't a lot of tools that were good for studying it. [00:03:35] By 10 years later, when we'd left, there was a journal, there were conferences, there was a community of people who were doing this work, and that was another measure, really tangible measure of success that we kind of entered a field that, that needed some support in order to get going.
And by the time we got out, it was, it was going strong and the community of people doing that work had an identity and funding paths and a real future. Yeah.
[00:04:01] Ben: So I guess one way that I've been thinking about it, it's just, it's almost like counterfactual impact. Right. Whereas like if you hadn't gone in, then it, the, it wouldn't be
[00:04:12] Adam: there.
Yeah. I think that's the way we think about it. Of course that's a hard to, to measure. Yeah. But I think that Since a lot of the work we fund is not close to technology, right. We don't have available to ourselves, you know, did we spin out products? Did we spin out? Companies did a lot of the things that might directly connect that work to, [00:04:35] to activities that are outside of the research enterprise, that in other fields you can measure impact with.
So the impact is pretty internal. That is for the most part, it is, you know, Has it been impact on other parts of science that, you know, again, that we think might not have happened if we hadn't hadn't funded what we funded. As I said before, have communities grown up another interesting measure of impact from our project that we funded for about 25 years now, the Sloan digital sky survey is in papers published in the following sense that one of the innovations, when the Sloan digital sky survey launched in the early.
Was that the data that came out of it, which was all for the first time, digital was shared broadly with the community. That is, this was a survey of the night sky that looked at millions of objects. So they're very large databases. And the investigators who built this, the, the built the, the, the telescope certainly had first crack at analyzing that [00:05:35] data.
But there was so much richness in the data that the decision was made at. Sloan's urging early on that this data after a year should be made public 90% of the publications that came out of the Sloan digital sky survey have not come from collaborators, but it come from people who use that data after it's been publicly released.
Yeah. So that's another way of kind of seeing impact and success of a project. And it's reached beyond its own borders.
[00:06:02] Ben: And you mentioned like both. Just like that timescale, right? Like that, that, that 25 years something that I think is just really cool about the Sloan foundation is like how, how long you've been around and sort of like your capability of thinking on those on like a quarter century timescale.
And I guess, how do you, how do you think about timescales on things? Right. Because it's like, on the one hand, this is like, obviously like science can take [00:06:35] 25 years on the other hand, you know, it's like, you need to be, you can't just sort of like do nothing for 25 years.
[00:06:44] Adam: So if you had told people back in the nineties that the Sloan digital sky survey was going to still be going after a quarter of a century, they probably never would have funded it.
So, you know, I think that That you have an advantage in the foundation world, as opposed to the the, the federal funding, which is that you can have some flexibility about the timescales on what you think. And so you don't have to simply go from grant to grant and you're not kind of at the mercy of a Congress that changes its own funding commitments every couple of years.
We at the Sloan foundation tend to think that it takes five years at a minimum to have impact into any new field that you go into it. And we enter a new science field, you know, as we just entered, we just started a new program matter to life, which we can talk about. [00:07:35] That's initially a five-year commitment to put about $10 million a year.
Into this discipline, understanding that if things are going well, we'll re up for another five years. So we kind of think of that as a decadal program. And I would say the time scale we think on for programs is decades. The timescale we think of for grants is about three years, right? But a program itself consists of many grants may do a large number of investigators.
And that's really the timescale where we think you can have, have an impact over that time. But we're constantly re-evaluating. I would say the timescale for rethinking a program is shorter. That's more like five years and we react. So in our ongoing programs, about every five years, we'll take a step back and do a review.
You know, whether we're having an impact on the program, we'll get some outside perspectives on it and whether we need to keep it going exactly as it is, or adjust in some [00:08:35] interesting ways or shut it down and move the resources somewhere else. So
[00:08:39] Ben: I like that, that you have, you almost have like a hierarchy of timescales, right?
Like you have sort of multiple going at once. I think that's, that's like under underappreciated and so w one thing they want to ask about, and maybe the the, the life program is a good sort of like case study in this is like, how do you, how do you decide what pro, like, how do you decide what programs to do, right?
Like you could do anything.
[00:09:04] Adam: So th that is a terrific question and a hard one to get. Right. And we just came out of a process of thinking very deeply about it. So it's a great time to talk about it. Let's do it. So To frame the large, the problem in the largest sense, if we want to start a new grantmaking program where we are going to allocate about $10 million a year, over a five to 10 year period, which is typical for us, the first thing you realize is that that's not a lot of money on the scale that the federal government [00:09:35] invest.
So if your first thought is, well, let's figure out the most interesting thing science that people are doing you quickly realize that those are things where they're already a hundred times that much money going in, right? I mean, quantum materials would be something that everybody is talking about.
The Sloan foundation, putting $10 million a year into quantum materials is not going to change anything. Interesting. So you start to look for that. You start to look for structural reasons that something that there's a field or an emerging field, and I'll talk about what some of those might be, where an investment at the scale that we can make can have a real impact.
And And so what might some of those areas be? There are fields that are very interdisciplinary in ways that make it hard for individual projects to find a home in the federal funding landscape and one overly simplified, but maybe helpful way to think about it is that the federal funding landscape [00:10:35] is, is governed large, is organized largely by disciplines.
That if you look at the NSF, there's a division, there's a director of chemistry and on physics and so forth. And but many questions don't map well onto a single discipline. And sometimes questions such as some of the ones we're exploring in the, you know, the matter to life program, which I can explain more about what that is.
Some of those questions. Require collaborations that are not naturally fundable in any of the silos the federal government has. So that's very interdisciplinary. Work is one area. Second is emerging disciplines. And again, often that couples to interdisciplinary work in a way that often disciplines emerge in interesting ways at the boundaries of other disciplines.
Sometimes the subject matter is the boundary. Sometimes it's a situation where techniques developed in one discipline are migrating to being used in another discipline. And that often happens with physics, the [00:11:35] physicist, figure out how to do something, like grab the end of a molecule and move it around with a laser.
And suddenly the biologists realize that's a super interesting thing for them. And they would like to do that. So then there's work. That's at the boundary of those kind of those disciplines. You know, a third is area that the ways in which that that can happen is that you can have. Scale issues where, where kind of work needs to happen at a certain scale that is too big to be a single investigator, but too small to kind of qualify for the kind of big project funding that you have in the, in the, in the federal government.
And so you're looking, you could also certainly find things that are not funded because they're not very interesting. And those are not the ones we want to fund, but you often have to sift through quite a bit of that to find something. So that's what you're looking for now, the way you look for it is not that you sit in a conference room and get real smart and think that you're going to see [00:12:35] things, other people aren't going to see rather you.
You source it out, out in the field. Right. And so we had an 18 month process in which we invited kind of proposals for what you could do on a program at that scale, from major research universities around the country, we had more than a hundred ideas. We had external panels of experts who evaluated these ideas.
And that's what kind of led us in the end to this particular framing of the new program that we're starting. So and, and that, and that process was enough to convince us that this was interesting, that it was, you know, emergent as a field, that it was hard to fund in other ways. And that the people doing the work are truly extraordinary.
Yeah. And that's, that's the, that's what you're looking for. And I think in some ways there are pieces of that in all of the programs that particularly the research programs that.
[00:13:29] Ben: And so, so actually, could you describe the matter to life program and like, [00:13:35] and sort of highlight how it fits into all of those buckets?
[00:13:38] Adam: Absolutely. So the, the, the matter of the life program is an investigation into the principles, particularly the physical principles that matter uses in order to organize itself into living systems. The first distinction to make is this is not a program about how did life evolve on earth, and it's actually meant to be a broader question then how is life on earth organized the idea behind it is that life.
Is a particular example of some larger phenomenon, which is life. And I'm not going to define life for you. That is, we know what things are living and we know things that aren't living and there's a boundary in between. And part of the purpose of this program is to explore that it's a think of it as kind of out there, on, out there in the field.
And, and mapmaking, and you know, over here is, you [00:14:35] know, is a block of ice. That's not alive. And, you know, over here is a frog and that's alive and there's all sorts of intermediate spaces in there. And there are ideas out there that, that go, you know, that are interesting ideas about, for example, at the cellular level how is information can date around a cell?
What might the role of. Things like non-equilibrium thermodynamics be playing is how does, can evolution be can it can systems that are, non-biological be induced to evolve in interesting ways. And so we're studying both biotic and non biotic systems. There are three strains, stray strands in this.
One is building life. That is it was said by I think I, I find men that if you can't build something, you don't understand it. And so the idea, and there are people who want to build an actual cell. I think that's, that's a hard thing to do, but we have people who are building in the laboratory little bio-molecular machines understanding how that might [00:15:35] work.
We, we fund people who are kind of constructing, protocells thinking about ways that the, the ways that liquid separate might provide SEP diff divisions between inside and outside, within. Chemical reactions could take place. We funded businesses to have made tiny little, you know, micron scale magnets that you mix them together and you can get them to kind of organize themselves in interesting ways.
Yeah. In emerge. What are the ways in which emergent behaviors come to this air couple into this. And so that's kind of building life. Can you kind of build systems that have features that feel essential to life and by doing that, learn something general about, say the reproduction of, of, of, of DNA or something simple about how inside gets differentiated from outside.
Second strand is principles of life, and that's a little bit more around are [00:16:35] there physics principles that govern the organization of life? And again, are there ways in which the kinds of thinking that informed thermodynamics, which is kind of the study of. Piles of gas and liquid and so forth.
Those kinds of thinking about bulk properties and emergent behavior can tell us something about what's the difference between life that's life and matter. That's not alive. And the third strain is signs of life. And, you know, we have all of these telescopes that are out there now discover thousands of exoplanets.
And of course the thing we all want to know is, is there life on them? We were never going to go to them. We maybe if we go, we'll never come back. And and we yet we can look and see the chemical composition of these. Protoplanets just starting to be able to see that. And they transition in front of a star, the atmospheres of these planets absorb light from the stars and the and the light that's absorbed tells you something about the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
[00:17:35] So there's a really interesting question. Kind of chemical. Are there elements of the chemical composition of an atmosphere that would tell you that that life is present there and life in general? Right. I, you know, if, if you, if you're going to look for kind of DNA or something, that might be way too narrow, a thing to kind of look for.
Right. So we've made a very interesting grant to a collaboration that is trying to understand the general properties of atmospheres of Rocky planets. And if you kind of knew all of the things that an atmosphere of an Earth-like planet might look like, and then you saw something that isn't one in one of those, you think, well, something other might've done that.
Yeah. So that's a bit of a flavor. What I'd say about the nature of the research is it is, as you could tell highly interdisciplinary. Yeah. Right. So this last project I mentioned requires geoscience and astrophysics and chemistry and geochemistry and a vulcanology an ocean science [00:18:35] and, and Who's going to fund that.
Yeah. Right. It's also in very emerging area because it comes at the boundary between geoscience, the understanding of what's going on on earth and absolutely cutting edge astrophysics, the ability to kind of look out into the cosmos and see other planets. So people working at that boundary it's where interesting things often, often happen.
[00:18:59] Ben: And you mentioned that when, when you're looking at programs, you're, you're looking for things that are sort of bigger than like a single pie. And like, how do you, how do you think about sort of the, the different projects, like individual projects within a program? Becoming greater than the sum of their parts.
Like, like, you know, there's, there's some, there's like one end of the spectrum where you've just sort of say, like, go, go do your things. And everybody's sort of runs off. And then there's another end of the spectrum where you like very explicitly tell people like who should be working on what and [00:19:35] how to, how to collaborate.
So like, how do you,
[00:19:37] Adam: so one of the wonderful things about being at a foundation is you have a convening power. Yeah. I mean, in part, because you're giving away money, people will, will want to come gather when you say let's come together, you know? And in part, because you just have a way of operating, that's a bit independent.
And so the issue you're raising is a very important one, you know, in the individual at a program at a say, science grant making program we will fund a lot of individual projects, which may be a single investigator, or they may be big collab, collaborations, but we also are thinking from the beginning about how.
Create help create a field. Right. And it may not always be obvious how that's going to work. I think with matter to life we're early on and we're, you know, we're not sure is this a single field, are there sub fields here? But we're already thinking about how to bring our pies together to kind of share the work they're doing and get to share perspectives.
I can give you another example from a program Reno law, we recently [00:20:35] closed, which was a chemistry of the indoor environment. Where we were funded kind of coming out of our work in the microbiology indoors. It turns out that there's also very interesting chemistry going on indoors which is different from the environmental chemistry that we think about outdoors indoors.
There are people in all the stuff that they exude, there's an enormous number of surfaces. And so surface chemistry is really important. And, and again, there were people who were doing this work in isolation, interested in, in these kinds of topics. And we were funding them individually, but once we had funded a whole community of people doing.
They decided that be really interesting to do a project where, which they called home cam, where they went to a test house and kind of did all sorts of indoor activities like cooking Thanksgiving dinner and studying the chemistry together. And this is an amazing collaboration. So we had, so many of our grantees came together in one [00:21:35] place around kind of one experiment or one experimental environment and did work then where it could really speak to each other.
Right. And which they they'd done experiments that were similar enough that they, the people who were studying one aspect of the chemistry and another could do that in a more coherent way. And I think that never would have happened without the Sloan foundation having funded this chemistry of indoor environments program.
Both because of the critical mass we created, but also because of the community of scholars that we, that we help foster.
[00:22:07] Ben: So, it's like you're playing it a very important role, but then it, it is sort of like a very then bottom up sort of saying like, like almost like put, like saying like, oh, like you people all actually belong together and then they look around and like, oh yeah, yeah,
[00:22:24] Adam: we do.
I think that's exactly right. And yeah. You don't want to be too directive because, you know, we're, we're just a foundation where we got some program directors and, you know, [00:22:35] we, we do know some things about the science we're funding, but the real expertise lives with these researchers who do this work every day.
Right. And so what we're trying to see when, when we think we can see some things that they can't, it's not going to be in the individual details of the work they're doing, but it may be there from up here on the 22nd floor of the Rockefeller center, we can see the landscape a little bit better and are in a position to make connections that then will be fruitful.
You know, if we were right, there'll be fruitful because the people on the ground doing the work with the expertise, believe that they're fruitful. Sometimes we make a connection and it's not fruitful in that. It doesn't fruit and that's fine too. You know, we're not always right about everything either, but we have an opportunity to do that.
That comes from the. Particular in special place that we happen to sit. Yeah.
[00:23:28] Ben: Yeah. And just speaking of program directors, how do you, how do you think about, I mean, like [00:23:35] you're, you're sort of in charge and so how do you think about directing them and, and sort of how do you think about setting up incentives so that, you know, good work like so that they do good work on their programs and and like how much sort of autonomy do you give them?
Sort of how does, how does all of that work?
[00:23:56] Adam: Absolutely. So I spent most of my career in universities and colleges. I was my own background is as, as, as a theoretical physicist. And I spent quite a bit of time as a Dean and a college president. And I think the key to being a successful academic administrator is understanding deep in your bones, that the faculty are the heart of the institution.
They are the intellectual heart and soul of the institution. And that you will have a great institution. If you hire terrific faculty and support them you aren't telling them, you know, you as, and they don't require a lot of telling them what to do, but the [00:24:35] leadership role does require a lot of deciding where to allocate the resources and helping figure out and, and figuring out how, and in what ways, and at what times you can be helpful to them.
Yeah. The program directors at the Sloan foundation are very much. The faculty of a, of a university and we have six right now it's five PhDs and a road scholar. Right. And they are, each of them truly respect, deeply respected intellectual leaders in the fields in which they're making grants. Right. And my job is to first off to hire and retain a terrific group of program directors who know way more about the things they're doing than I do.
And then to kind of help them figure out how to craft their programs. And you know, there's different kinds of, you know, different kinds of help that different kind of program directors needs. Sometimes they just need resources. Sometimes they need, you know, a collaborative conversation. You know, [00:25:35] sometimes, you know, we talk about the ways in which their individual programs are gonna fit together into the larger.
Programs at the Sloan foundation sometimes what we talk about is ways in which we can and should, or shouldn't change what we do in order to build a collaboration elsewhere. But I don't do much directing of the work that program directors to just like, I don't, didn't ever do much of any directing of the work that, that that the faculty did.
And I think what keeps a program director engaged at a place like the Sloan foundation is the opportunity to be a leader. Yeah.
[00:26:10] Ben: It's actually sort of to double click on that. And on, on, on hiring program directors, it seems it like, I, I, I would imagine that it is, it is sometimes tough to get really, really good program directors, cause people who would make good program directors could probably have, you know, their pick.
Amazing roles. And, and to some extent, and, and [00:26:35] they, they, they do get to be a leader, but to some extent, like they're, they're not directly running a lab, right. Like they're, they, they don't have sort of that direct power. And they're, they're not like making as much money as they could be, you know, working at Google or something.
And so, so like how do you both like find, and then convince people to, to come do that?
[00:26:57] Adam: So that's a great question. I mean, I think there's a certain, you know, P people are meant to be program directors are, are not the, usually the place like the Sloan foundation and different foundations work differently.
Right. So but in our case are not people who Otherwise, who would rather be spending their time in the lab. Yeah. Right. And many of them have spent time as serious scholars in one discipline or another, but much like faculty who move into administration, they've come to a point in their careers, whether that was earlier or later in their [00:27:35] career where the larger scope that's afforded by doing it by being a program director compensates for the fact that they can't focus in the same way on a particular problem, that, that the way a faculty member does or a researcher.
Yes. So the, the other thing you have to feel really in your bones, which is, again, much like being an academic administrator is that there's a deep reward in finding really talented people and giving them the resources. They need to do great things. Right. And in the case, if you're a program director, what you're doing is finding grantees and When a grantee does something really exciting.
We celebrate that here at the foundation as, as a success of the foundation. Not that we're trying to claim their success, but because that's what we're trying to do, we're trying to find other people who can do great things and give them the resources to do those great things. So you have to get a great kind of professional satisfaction from.
So there are people who have a [00:28:35] broader view or want to move into a, a time in their careers when they can take that broader view about a field or an area that they already feel passionate about. And then who have the disposition that, that, you know, that wanting to help people is deeply rewarding to them.
And, you know, say you, how do you find these folks? It's, it's just like, it's hard to find people who were really good at academic administration. You have to look really hard for people who are going to be great at this work. And you persuade them to do it precisely because they happen to be people who want to do this kind of work.
[00:29:09] Ben: And actually and so, so you, you sort of are, are highlighting a lot of parallels between academic administration and, and sort of your role now. I think it. Is there anything that, but at the same time, I think that there are many things that like academics don't understand about sort of like science funding and and, and this, that, that world, and then there's many things that it seems like science funders don't understand about [00:29:35] research and, and you're, you're one of the few people who've sort of done in both.
And so I guess just a very open-ended question is like, like what, what do you wish that more academics understood about the funding world and things you have to think about here? And what do you wish more people in the funding world understood about, about research? Yeah,
[00:29:54] Adam: that is, that is great. So I can give you a couple of things.
The, I think at a high level, I, I always wish that on both sides of that divide, there was a deeper understanding of the constraints under which people on the other side are operating. And those are both material constraints and what I might call intellectual constraints. So there's a parallelism here.
I, if I first say from the point of view of the, of as a foundation president, what do I wish that academics really understood? I, I, I'm always having to reinforce to people that we really do mean it when we say we do fund, we fund X and we don't fund Y [00:30:35] yeah. And that please don't spend time trying to persuade me that Z, that you do really is close enough to X, that we should fund it and get offended.
When I tell you that's not what we fund, we say no to a lot of things that are intrinsically great, but that we're not funding because it's not what we fund. Yeah. We as, and we make choices about what to fund that are very specific and what areas to fund in that are very specific so that we can have some impact, right.
And we don't make those decisions lightly, you know, for almost any work someone is doing, we're not the only foundation who might fund it. So move on to someone else. If you're not fitting our program, then argue with us and just understand why it is that, that we do that. Right. I think that is that's a come across that a lot.
There's a total parallel, which I think is very important for people in foundations who have very strong ideas about what they should fund to understand that, you know, academics are not going to drop what they're doing and start doing something else because there's a [00:31:35] little bit of money available that, you know, is an academic, of course, you're trying to make.
Your questions, two ways, things you can support, but usually driven because some question is really important to you. And if, you know, if some foundation comes to you and says, well, stop doing that and do this, I'll find it. You know why maybe that's, you're pretty desperate. You're not going to do that.
So the best program directors spend a lot of time looking for people who already are interested in the thing that the foundation is funding, right? And really underst understand that you can't bribe people into doing something that they, that they, that they otherwise wouldn't do. And so I think those are very parallel.
I mean, to both to understand the set of commitments that people are operating under, I would say the other thing that I think it's really important for foundations to understand about about universities is and other institutions is that these institutions. Are not just platforms [00:32:35] on which one can do a project, right?
They are institutions that require support on their own. And somebody has to pay the debt service on the building and take out the garbage and cut the grass and clean the building and, you know hire the secretaries and do all of the kind of infrastructure work that makes it possible for a foundation such as Sloan to give somebody $338,000 to hire some postdocs and do some interesting experiments, but somebody is still turning on the lights and overhead goes to the overhead is really important and the overhead is not some kind of profit that universities are taking.
It is the money they need in order to operate in ways that make it possible to do the grants. And. You know, there's a longer story here. I mean, even foundations like Sloan don't pay the full overhead and we can do that because [00:33:35] we typically are a very small part of the funding stream. But during the pandemic, we raised our overhead permanently from the 15% we used to pay to the 20% that we pay now, precisely because we've, we felt it was important to signal our support for the institutions.
And some of those aren't universities, some of those are nonprofits, right? That other kinds of nonprofits that we're housing, the activities that we were interested in funding. And I just think it's really important for foundations to understand that. And I do think that my own time as a Dean at a college president, when I needed that overhead in order to turn on the lights, so some chemist could hire the post-docs has made me particularly sensitive
[00:34:16] Ben: to that.
Yeah, no, that's, that's a really good. Totally that I don't think about enough. So, so, so I really appreciate that. And I think sort of implicit implicit in our conversation has been two sort of core things. One, is that the way that you [00:34:35] fund work is through grants and two, is that the, the primary people doing the research are academics and I guess it just, w let's say, w w what is, what's the actual question there it's like, is it like, do you, do you think that that is the best way of doing it?
Have you like explored other ways? Because it, it, it feels like those are sort of both you know, it's like has been the way that people have done it for a long time.
[00:35:04] Adam: So there's, there's two answers to that question. The first is just to acknowledge that the Sloan foundation. Probably 50 out of the $90 million a year in grants we make are for research.
And almost all of that research is done at universities, I think primarily because we're really funding basic research and that's where basic research has done. If we were funding other kinds of research, a lot of use inspired research research that was closer to kind of technology. We would be, you might be [00:35:35] funding people who worked in different spaces, but the kind of work we fund that's really where it's done.
But we have another significant part of the foundation that funds things that aren't quite research, that the public understanding of science and technology diversity, equity and inclusion in stem, higher ed of course, much of that is, is money that goes into universities, but also into other institutions that are trying to bring about cultural change in the sciences badly needed cultural change.
And then our technology program, which looks at all sorts of technologies. Modern technologies that support scholarships such as software scholarly communication, but as increasingly come to support modes of collaboration and other kinds of more kind of social science aspects of how people do research.
And there are a lot of that funding is not being given to universities. A lot of that funding is given to other sorts of institutions, nonprofits, always because we're a [00:36:35] foundation, we can only fund nonprofits, but that go beyond the kind of institutional space that universities occupy. We're really looking for.
You know, we're not driven by a kind of a sense of who we should fund followed by what we should fund. We're interested in funding problems and questions. And then we look to see who it is that that is doing that work. So in public understanding some of that's in the universities, but most of it isn't and
[00:37:00] Ben: actually the two to go back.
One thing that I wanted to to ask about is like It seems like there's, if you're primarily wanting to find people who are already doing the sort of work that is within scope of a program, does it, like, I guess it almost like raises the chicken and egg problem of like, how, how do you, like, what if there's an area where people really should be doing work, but nobody is, is doing that work [00:37:35] because there is no funding to do that work.
Right. Like this is just something that I struggled with. It's not right. And so, so it's like, how do you, how do you sort of like bootstrap thing? Yes.
[00:37:46] Adam: I mean, I think that the way to think about it is that you work incrementally. That is if, if once, and I think you're, you're quite right. That is in some sense, we are looking for areas that.
Under inhabited, scientifically because people aren't supporting that work. And that's another way of saying what I said at the beginning about how we're looking for maybe interdisciplinary fields that are hard to support. One way you can tell that they're hard to support is that there isn't a support people aren't doing it, but typically you're working in from the edges, right.
There's people on the boundaries of those spaces chomping at the bit. Right. And when you say, you know, what is the work? You can't do what you would do if you add some funding and tell [00:38:35] us why it's super interesting. That's the question you're asking. And that's kind of the question that drives what we talked about before, which is how do you identify a new area, but it's it it's actually to your point, precisely, it's not the area where everybody already is.
Cause there's already a lot of money there. Right? So I would say. You know, if you really had to bootstrap it out in the vacuum, you would have to have the insights that we don't pretend to have. You'd have this ability to kind of look out into the vacuum of space and conjure something that should be there and then have in conjure who should do it and have the resources to start the whole thing.
That's not the Sloan foundation we do. We don't operate at that scale, but there's another version of that, which is a more incremental and recognizes the exciting ideas that researchers who are adjacent to an underfunded field. Can't th th th th th the, the excitement that they have to go into a new [00:39:35] area, that's just adjacent to where they are and being responsive to that.
[00:39:39] Ben: No, that's, and that's, it sort of ties back in my mind to. Y you need to do programs on that ten-year timescale, right? Like, you know, it's like the first three years you go a little bit in the next three years, you do a little bit in, and by like the end of the 10 years, then you're actually in, in
[00:39:59] Adam: that new.
No, I think that's exactly right. And the other thing is you can, you know, be more risky or more speculative. I like the word speculative better than risky. Risky makes it sound like you don't know what you're doing. Speculative is meant to say, you don't know where you're going to go. So I don't ever think the grants we're funding are particularly risky in the sense that they're going to, the projects will fail.
They're speculative in the sense that you don't know if they're going to lead somewhere really interesting. And this is where. The current funding landscape is really in the federal funding. Landscape is really challenging because [00:40:35] the competition for funding is so high that you really need to be able to guarantee success, which doesn't just mean guarantee that your project will work, but that it will, you know, we will contribute in some really meaningful way to moving the field forward, which means that you actually have to have done half the project already before that's, what's called preliminary data playmate.
As far as I'm concerned, preliminary data means I already did it. And now I'm just going to clean it up with this grant. And that is, that's a terrible constraint and we can, we're not bound by that kind of constraint in funding things. So we can have failures that are failures in the sense that that didn't turn out to be as interesting as we hoped it would be.
[00:41:17] Ben: I love your point on, on the risk. I, I, I dunno. I, I think that it's, especially with like science, right? It's like, what is it. The risk, right? Like, you're going to discover something. You might discover that, you know, this is like the phenomenon we thought was a [00:41:35] phenomenon is not really there. Right.
But it's, it's still, it's, it's not risky because you weren't like investing for,
[00:41:43] Adam: for an ROI. Can I give you another example? I think it was a really good one. Is, is it in the matter of the life program? We made a grant to a guy named David Baker, the university of Washington and hated him. And so, you know, David Baker.
And so David Baker builds these little nanoscale machines and he has an enormous Institute for doing this. It's extraordinarily exciting work and. Almost all of the work that he is able to do is tool directed toward applications, particularly biomedical applications. Totally understandable. There's a lot of money there.
There's a lot of need there. Everybody wants to live forever. I don't, but everybody else seems to want to, but, so why did, why would, why do we think that we should fund them with all of the money that's in the Institute for protein engineering? Which I think is what it's called. It's because we actually funded him to do some basic science.[00:42:35]
Yeah to build machines that didn't have an application, but to learn something about the kinds of machines and the kinds of machinery inside cells, by building something that doesn't have an application, but as an interesting basic science component to it, and that's actually a real impact, it was a terrific grant for us because there's all of this arc, all of this architecture that's already been built, but a new direction that he can go with his colleagues that that he actually, for all of the funding he has, he can't do under the content under the.
Umbrella of kind of biomedicine. And so that's another way in which things can be more speculative, right? That's speculative where he doesn't know where it's going. He doesn't know the application it's going to. And so even for him, that's a lot harder to do unless something like Sloan steps in and says, well, this is more speculative.
It's certainly not risky. I don't think it's risky to fund David bay could do anything, but it's speculative about where this particular [00:43:35] project is going to lead.
[00:43:36] Ben: Yeah, no, I like that. It's just like more, more speculation. And, and you, you mentioned just. Slight tangent, but you mentioned that, you know, Sloan Sloan operates at a certain skill.
Do you ever, do you ever team up with other philanthropies? Is that, is that a thing?
[00:43:51] Adam: Yeah, we, we do and we love, we love co-funding. We've, we've done that in many of our programs in the technology program. We funded co-funded with more, more foundation on data science in the, we have a tabletop physics program, which I haven't talked about, but basically measuring, you know, fundamental properties of the electron in a laboratory, the size of this office rather than a laboratory.
You know, the Jura mountains, CERN and there we, it was a partnership actually with the national science foundation and also with the Moore foundation we have in our energy and environment program partnered with the research corporation, which runs these fascinating program called CYA logs, where they bring young investigators out to Tucson, Arizona, or on to zoom lately, but [00:44:35] basically out to Tucson, Arizona, and mix them up together around an interesting problem for a few days, and then fund a small, small kind of pilot projects out of that.
We've worked with them on negative emission science and on battery technologies. Really interesting science projects. And so we come in as a co-funder with them there, I think, to do that, you really need an alignment of interests. Yeah. You really both have to be interested in the same thing. And you have to be a little bit flexible about the ways in which you evaluate proposals and put together grants and so forth so that, so that you don't drive the PIs crazy by having them satisfy two foundations at the same time, but where that is productive, that can be really exciting.
[00:45:24] Ben: Cause it seems like I'm sure you're familiar with, they feel like the common application for college. It just, it seems like, I mean, like one of the, sort of my biggest [00:45:35] criticisms of grants in general is that, you know, it's like you sort of need to be sending them everywhere. And there's, there's sort of like the, the well-known issue where, you know, like PI has spend some ridiculous proportion of their time writing grants and it.
Sort of a, like a philanthropic network where like, it just got routed to the right people and like sort of a lot happened behind the scenes. That seems like it could be really powerful. Yeah.
[00:46:03] Adam: I think that actually would be another level of kind of collective collaboration. Like the common app. I think it would actually in this way, I love the idea.
I have to say it's probably hard to make it happen because pre-site, for a couple of reasons that don't make it a bad idea, but it just kind of what planet earth is like. You know, one is that we have these very specific programs and so almost any grant has to be a little bit re-engineered in order to fit into because the programs are so specific fit into a new foundations [00:46:35] program.
And the second is. We can certainly at the Sloan foundation, very finicky about what review looks like. And very foundations have different processes for assuring quality. And the hardest work I find in a collaboration is aligning those processes because we get very attached to them. It's a little like the tenure review processes at university.
Every single university has its own, right. They have their own tenure process and they think that it was crafted by Moses on Mount Sinai and can never be changed as the best that it possibly ever could be. And then you go to another institution, that thing is different and they feel the same way. That is a feature.
I mean really a bug of of the foundation, but it's kind of part of the reality. And, and we certainly, if, if what we really need in order for there to be more collaboration, I strongly feel is for everyone to adopt the Sloan foundation, grant proposal guidelines and review practices. And then all this collaboration stuff would be a piece of cake.[00:47:35]
[00:47:35] Ben: like standards anywhere, right. Where it's like, oh, of course I'm willing to use the standard. It has to be exactly.
[00:47:41] Adam: We have a standard we're done. If you would just, if you would just recognize that we're better this would be so much simpler. It's just, it's like, it's the way you make a good marriage work.
[00:47:51] Ben: And speaking of just foundations and philanthropic funding more generally sort of like one of the criticisms that gets leveled against foundations especially in, in Silicon valley, is that because there's, there's sort of no market mechanism driving the process that, you know, it's like, it, it can be inefficient and all of that.
And I, personally don't think that that marketing mechanisms are good for everything, but I'd be interested in and just like. Sort of response to, to
[00:48:23] Adam: that. Yeah. So let me broaden that criticism and because I think there's something there that's really important. There's the enormous discretion that [00:48:35] foundations have is both their greatest strength.
And I think their greatest danger that is, you know what, because there is not a discipline that is forcing them to make certain sets of choices in a certain structure. Right. And whether that's markets or whether you think that more generally as, as a, as a kind of other discipline in it, disciplining forces too much freedom can, or I shouldn't say too much freedom, but I would say a lot of freedom can lead to decision-making that is idiosyncratic and And inconsistent and inconstant, right?
That is a nicer, a more direct way to say it is that if no one constraints what you do and you just do what you feel like maybe what you feel like isn't the best guide for what you should do. And you need to be governed by a context which assure is strategic [00:49:35] consistencies, strategic alignment with what is going on at other places in, in ways that serve your, you know, that serve the field a commitment to quality other kinds of commitments that make sure that your work is having high impact as a, as a funder.
And those don't come from the outside. Right. And so you have to come up with ways. Internally to assure that you keep yourself on the straight and narrow. Yeah. I think there's some similar consideration about which is beyond science funding and philanthropy about the necessity of doing philanthropic work for the public.
Good. Yeah. Right. And I think that's a powerful, ethical commitment that we have to have the money that we have from the Sloan foundation or that the Ford foundation, as of the Rockefeller foundation as are in it, I didn't make that money. What's more Alfred P Sloan who left us this money made the money in a context in which lots of people did a lot of work [00:50:35] that don't have that money.
Right. A lot of people working at general motors plants and, and, you know, he made that work in a society that support. The accumulation of that fortune and that it's all tax-free. So the federal government is subsidizing this implicitly. The society is subsidizing the work we do because it's it's tax exempt.
So that imposes on us, I think, an obligation to develop a coherent idea of what using our funding for the public good means, and not every foundation is going to have that same definition, but we have an obligation to develop that sense in a thoughtful way, and then to follow it. And that is one of the governors on simply following our whims.
Right? So we think about that a lot here at the Sloan foundation and the ways in which our funding is justifiable as having a positive, good [00:51:35] that You know, that, that, that attaches to the science we fund or, or just society in general. And that if we don't see that, you know, we, we think really hard about whether we want to do that grant making.
Yeah. So it's
[00:51:47] Ben: like, I, and I think about things in terms of, of, of like systems engineering. And so it's like, you sort of have these like self-imposed feedback loops. Yes. While it's not, it's not an external market sort of giving you that feedback loop, you still there, you can still sort of like send, like to set up these loops so
[00:52:09] Adam: that, so my colleague, one of the program directors here, my colleague, Evan, Michelson is written entire book on.
On science philanthropy, and on applying a certain framework that's been developed largely in used in Europe, but also known here in this state, it's called responsible research and innovation, which provides a particular framework for asking these kinds of questions about who you fund and how you fund, what sorts of funding you do, what [00:52:35] sorts of communities you fund into how you would think about doing that in a responsible way.
And it's not a book that provides answers, but it's a book that provides a framework for thinking about the questions. And I think that's really important. And as I say, I'm just going to say it again. I think we have an ethical imperative to apply that kind of lens to the work we do. We don't have an ethical imperative to come up with any particular answer, but we have an ethical imperative to do the thinking and I recommend Evan's book to all right.
[00:53:06] Ben: I will read it recommendation accepted. And I think, I think. Broadly, and this is just something that, I mean, sort of selfishly, but I also think like there's a lot of people who have made a lot of money in, especially in, in technology. And it's interesting because you look at sort of like you could, you could think of Alfred P Sloan and, and Rockefeller and a lot of [00:53:35] in Carnegie's as these people who made a lot of money and then started, started these foundations.
But then you don't see as much of that now. Right? Like you have, you have, you have some but really the, the, the sentiment that I've engaged with a lot is that again, like sort of prioritizing market mechanisms, a implicit idea that, that, like anything, anything valuable should be able to capture that value.
And I don't know. It's just like, like how do you, like, have you
[00:54:08] Adam: talked to people about, yeah, I think that's a really interesting observation. I think that, and I think it's something we think about a lot is the, the different, I think about a lot is the differences in the ways that today's, you know, newly wealthy, you know, business people, particularly the tech entrepreneurs think about philanthropy.
As relates to the way that they made their money. So if we look at Alfred [00:54:35] P Sloan, he he basically built general motors, right? He was a brilliant young engineer who manufactured the best ball bearings in the country for about 20 years, which turned out at the nascent automobile industry. As you can imagine, reducing friction is incredibly important and ball bearings were incredibly important and he made the best ball-bearings right.
That is a real nuts. And, but nothing sexy about ball-bearings right. That is the perspective you get on auto manufacturer is that the little parts need to work really well in order for the whole thing to work. And he built a big complicated institution. General motors is a case study is the case study in American business about how you build a large.
In large business that has kind of semi-autonomous parts as a way of getting to scale, right? How do you get general motors to scale? You have, you know, you have Chevy and you have a Buick and you're a [00:55:35] Pontiac and you have old's and you have Cadillac and GMC and all, you know, and this was, he was relentlessly kind of practical and institutional thinker, right across a big institution.
And the big question for him was how do I create stable institutional structures that allow individual people to exercise judgment and intelligence so they can drive their parts of that thing forward. So he didn't believe that people were cogs in some machine, but he believed that the structure of the machine needed to enable the flourishing of the individual.
And that's, that's how we built general motors. That does not describe. The structure of a tech startup, right? Those are move fast and break things, right? That is the mantra. There. You have an idea, you build it quickly. You don't worry about all the things you get to scale as fast as you can with as little structure as you can.
You [00:56:35] don't worry about the collateral damage or frankly, much about the people that are, that are kind of maybe the collateral damage. You just get to scale and follow your kind of single minded vision and people can build some amazing institutions that way. I mean, I think it's, it's been very successful, right?
For building over the last decades, you know, this incredible tech economy. Right? So I don't fault people for thinking about their business that way. But when you turn that thinking to now funding science, There's a real mismatch, I think between that thinking about institutions and institutions don't matter, the old ones are broken and the new ones can be created immediately.
Right? And the fact that real research while it requires often individual leaps forward in acts of brilliance requires a longstanding functioning community. It [00:57:35] fires institutions to fund that research, to host that research that people have long, you know, that the best research is actually done by people who were engaged in various parts of very long decades, careers doing a certain thing that it takes a long time to build expertise and Eva, as brilliant as you are, you need people around you with expertise and experience.
There's a real mismatch. And so there can be a reluctance to fund. Th the reluctance to have the commitment to timescales or reluctance to invest in institutions to invest in. There's a I, I think has developed a sense that we should fund projects rather than people and institutions. And that's really good for solving certain kinds of problems, but it's actually a real challenge for basic research and moving basic research forward.
So I think there's a lot of opportunity to educate people. And these are super smart people in the tech sector, right. About the [00:58:35] differences between universities and which are very important institutions in all of this and star tech startups. And they really are different sorts of institutions. So I think that's a challenge for us in this sector right now.
[00:58:48] Ben: What I liked. To do is tease apart why, why is this different? Like, why can't you just put in more nights to your research and like come up with the, come out with the, like the brilliant insight faster.
[00:59:01] Adam: Yeah. I mean, these people who are already working pretty hard, I would say, I mean, you, you know, you're of course, you know, this really well, there are different, I mean, science has, you know, has different parts of science that work on different sorts of problems and, you know, there's, there are problems.
Where there's a much more immediate goal of producing a technology that would be usable and applicable. And those require a diff organism organizing efforts in different ways. And, you know, as you well know, the, the national, you know, [00:59:35] the, the private laboratories like bell labs and Xerox labs, and so forth, played a really important role in doing basic research that was really inspired by a particular application.
And they were in the ecosystem in a somewhat different way than the basic research done in the universities. You need both of them. And so it, it's not that the way that say the Sloan foundation fund sciences, if everybody only funded science that way, that would not be good. Right. But, but the, the, the big money that's coming out of the, the newly wealthy has the opportunity to have a really positive impact on basically.
Yeah, but only if it can be deployed in ways that are consistent with the way that basic sciences is done. And I think that requires some education and,
[01:00:22] Ben: and sort of speaking of, of institutions. The, like, as I know, you're aware, there's, there's sort of like this, this like weird Cambridge and explosion of people trying stuff.
And I, I guess, like, in addition [01:00:35] to just your, your thoughts on that, I'm, I'm interested particularly if you see, if you see gaps. That people aren't trying to fill, but like, you, you, you think that you would sort of like want to, to shine spotlights on just from, from, from your, your overview position.
[01:00:52] Adam: I mean, that's a great question.
I, I'm not going to be able to give you any interesting insight into what we need to do. I do think I'm in great favor of trying lots of things. I mean, I love what's going on right now that people are, you know, the, that people are trying different experiments about how to, to fund science. I think that I have a couple of thoughts.
I mean, I do think that most of them will fail because in the Cambrian explosion, most of things fail. Right. That is that's if they all succeeded people, aren't trying interesting enough things. Right. So that's fine. I think that there is a, I think that a danger in too much reinventing the wheel. And I, you know, one of the things I, you know, when notice is, is [01:01:35] that you know, some of the new organizations, many of them are kind of set up as a little bit hybrid organizations that they do some funding. And, but they also want to do some advocacy.
They're not 5 0 1 they maybe want to monetize the thing that they're, that they're doing. And I think, you know, the, you know, if you want to set a bell labs set up bell labs, there aren't.
Magic bullets for some magic hybrid organization, that's going to span research all the way from basic to products, right. And that is going to mysteriously solve the problem of plugging all of the holes in the kind of research, you know, research ecosystem. And so I think it's great that people are trying a lot of different things.
I hope that people are also willing to invest in the sorts of institutions we already have. And and that there's a, that there is kind of a balance. There's [01:02:35] a little bit of a language that you start to hear that kind of runs down, that it kind of takes a perspective that everything is broken in the way we're doing things now.
And I don't think that everything is broken in the way we do things. Now. I don't think that the entire research institution needs to be reinvented. I think. Interesting ideas should be tried. Right. I think there's a distinction between those two things. And I would hate to see the money disproportionately going into inventing new things.
Yeah. I don't know what the right balance is. And I don't have a global picture of how it's all distributed. I would like to see both of those things happening, but I worry a little bit that if we get a kind of a narrative that the tech billionaires all start to all start to buy into that the system is broken and they shouldn't invest in it.
I think that will be broken, then it will be broken and we'll [01:03:35] miss a great opportunity to do really great things, right? I mean, the, you know, the, what Carnegie and Rockefeller left behind were great institutions that have persisted long after Carnegie and Rockefeller. We're long gone and informs that Carnegie and Rockefeller could never have imagined.
And I would like that to be the aspiration and the outcome of the newly wealthy tech billionaires. The idea that you might leave something behind that, that 50 or a hundred years from now, you don't recognize, but it's doing good right. Long past your own ability to direct it. Right. And that requires a long-term sense of your investment in society, your trust in other people to carry something on after you to think more institutionally and less about what's wrong with institutions, I think would be a [01:04:35] helpful corrective to much of the narrative that I see there.
And that is not inconsistent with trying exciting new things. It really isn't. And I'm all in favor of that. But the system we have has actually produced. More technological progress than any other system at any other point in history by a factor that is absolutely incalculable. So we can't be doing everything wrong.
[01:04:58] Ben: I think that is a perfect place to stop.
Adam. Thanks for being part of idea machines.
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