by: Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D.

At the Moore Foundation, we define an outcome as a desired change in people, institutions, or conditions. The term “conditions” can cover a wide range of circumstances. In such areas as patient care or environmental conservation, the outcomes we seek are typically material changes in the world, such as “more lives saved” or “preservation of vital terrestrial and marine ecosystems.” In pursuing change in these domains, we adopt theories of change that characterize strategies designed to achieve the intended outcome, that is, the pathways to reach the pre-defined and desired change in the material world.

Similarly, scientific experiments are designed to reveal truths of nature — test a theoretical prediction, test a hypothesis about a causal relation, or reveal more precise and novel features of the world. Oftentimes, scientific research takes an unexpected turn, experiencing failures and keying off a new observation or insight, and an experiment can lead to unanticipated new knowledge. This is analogous to the ways unexpected obstacles and unanticipated opportunities crop up in other areas of endeavor, such as environmental conservation and patient care.

The story of science is replete with unanticipated and accidental discovery. The most common plastic, polyethylene, was discovered in the late 19th century by German chemists who characterized an unexpected, waxy residue at the bottom of their test tube. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 when he noticed inhibited growth of staphylococcal bacteria in a culture plate that had been contaminated by mold. Albert Szent-Györgyi, the Hungarian biochemist who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of vitamin C, once observed, “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” Although incomplete (many discoveries are indeed what no one has previously seen) Szent-Györgyi makes an important point: Discovery and new knowledge arise in the perception, recognition, and interpretation of the discoverer.

We romanticize the isolated genius whose scribbled equations may later be deciphered by lesser mortals as the unification of weak electromagnetic and strong atomic forces. More often, science is a team sport, proceeding in fits and starts, with occasional flashes of Szent-Györgyian insight or genuinely novel observations.

Weaving the tapestry of science

Science builds over time, as a tapestry constantly being woven and re-woven, always with gaping holes and frayed ends. Sometimes, it seems the time is ripe for discovery, as teams of researchers working independently reach the same breakthrough at almost the same time — a headache for the Nobel Prize committee and the patent office. Most often, scientific progress builds on a web of prior scientific discoveries, understandings, and insights that converge at some point in the future to produce yet deeper understanding of the natural world.

We believe, and experience teaches, that scientific knowledge ultimately leads to progress in society. However, these eventual, practical improvements are neither the instant motive nor the immediate goal of basic science, which are instead to uncover truths of nature. The eventual, practical benefits typically cannot be known or fully anticipated at the time of discovery.

James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin were intently focused on deciphering the structure of DNA. They asked the right questions, and they made a dramatic discovery on the object of their intent. The implications were vast, yet unknowable in all their ramifications. There could be no prospective theory of change that would link the demonstration of the double helical structure of DNA to the availability of mRNA vaccines against COVID.

Discovery matters

Discovery in science — to reveal truths of nature — is an important goal and for us at the Moore Foundation.

In science, attaining new knowledge is often the objective in itself, and we should embrace basic science for what it is – the surest way to understand the natural world. As expressed in our Statement of Founders’ Intent, “Expanding knowledge is both intellectually satisfying and often of practical value.”

Other domains of our work, such as environmental conservation and patient care typically define desired outcomes in terms of pre-specified change in the material world. Basic scientific discoveries can eventually prove of practical value, but usually in ways that are not specifiable in advance. In any area of our work, the path to a grantee’s success can be tortuous, filled with pitfalls, setbacks, and dead ends; we see such failures as an opportunity to learn and ultimately succeed.

The quest for discovery and new knowledge by no means exhausts the outcomes our foundation seeks in science. We also seek changes in material conditions that undergird and improve science, similar to our endeavors in environmental conservation and patient care, including expanding public understanding of science; bolstering the role of science in policy making; widening experience in science, especially for young and underrepresented groups; expanding open science; encouraging philanthropy in science; and other means of strengthening the enterprise of science in society.

In evaluating our philanthropic activity, we strive to:

  • Choose wisely the areas where we can make the most difference.
  • Ask the right questions.
  • Discern excellence among diverse pools of possible grantees.
  • Measure the success of the grantees we support.
  • Attain a desired risk-benefit profile, balance across strategies, and focus in our grantmaking.

Measurement of results and reliance on adaptive management, in science as in every domain of interest at the foundation, are cornerstones of philanthropy at the Moore Foundation.



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