Scaffolding. Image credit: jimmyweee via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The title of the conference I recently attended in Berlin,’Interfaces of Science and Policy and the Role of Foundations’, neatly describes the two themes of the meeting. So, having discussed the interfaces of science and policy in my first post, I’ll now explore the role of foundations.

Where do foundations fit?

First, it’s probably useful to clarify what we’re talking about when we say ‘foundation’; I must admit I wasn’t clear on this when I arrived in Germany. Helmut Anheier, Dean of the Hertie School of Governance, defined them as “private, independent funders”, and in the context of science funding and science policy this gives them a unique role.

Foundations can act independently of both the political and market pressures that other players are subject to and they are also less accountable to external actors than other players. In different national systems, you find foundations in different numbers and sizes and with different roles in the funding and policy landscape.

So, the question for this event was which of the many roles and approaches open to them should foundations choose to take?

Foundations as funders

In a panel session on science funding, we heard from Gordon Marshall, Director of the Leverhulme Trust, a UK Foundation that provides scholarships for education and research. Having previously been the Chief Executive of a Research Council, the ESRC, Marshall said that both public and foundation funders actually face many of the same challenges.

Science funding across the board deals with pressure to balance curiosity-driven with strategic research, an increasing emphasis on impact and the difficulty in predicting and measuring the ultimate outcomes of research.

The role of foundations, then, can be subtle in that they contribute to the diversity of funding sources available for research.

Finding a role at the interface

Of course, foundations don’t only act as funders. Many are involved in policy too, although they can struggle with how to approach the science policy interface, as discussed in my previous post.

Paul Brest, Co-Director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, described how policy work can also lead foundations to internal conflict, when they provide funding for areas in which they are also politically active.

With the freedom to engage in whatever work they choose and to focus on complex problems, Professor James Wilsdon suggested that foundations can be most effective when they perform a function that is not covered by other public or private players.

Wilsdon outlined three potential roles for foundations at the interfaces of science and policy:

1) to develop understanding of the science of science advice

2) to create fora for discussion between those working at the interfaces of science and policy

3) to facilitate the exchange of individuals across the divide.

Laying a foundation for the future 

In trying to define an optimal role for foundations, we were reminded that they are diverse, accountable only to themselves and acting in different systems around the world which means they naturally take on various roles.

Sharing practice across nations and organisations was seen to be a good way to get better at navigating the interface of science and policy, and this meeting was thought to have been successful in facilitating that exchange.

For the future, we were reminded that there is a broader conversation to be had with countries that are still developing and growing their science bases, as they define their systems for science policy too.