Over the last decade, the field of philanthropy has been heavily focused on measuring the impact of strategic investments. As accountability for resources intensifies, an increasing number of foundation staff, executives and their boards seek evidence to demonstrate the impact of their investment choices. For some areas of philanthropy, the impact of investments can be easily observed, but measuring impact can be far more elusive for other areas. Such is the case for basic science philanthropy.
The measurable impact of fundamental science is much harder to observe and quantify. While applied science can have an observable, practical impact in a relatively short timeframe, basic science is more exploratory and abstract, and therefore it can take much longer (perhaps decades) before impact is evident. Basic science emphasizes discovery and knowledge-building, rather than practical applications. For basic science funders, and for those interested in potentially funding basic science, identifying high-quality methods and tools for measuring the value and impact of investments is an important, yet challenging, priority.
Evaluation of basic science funding is an underexplored area, and at the Moore Foundation, we face challenges in how to effectively measure the impact of our investments in fundamental research. As a member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, we have built a strong network of peer organizations who all fund basic science. It was through our interactions with other Alliance members that we realized we were not the only ones facing the challenges associated with evaluating impact in basic science funding, so we decided to gather our peers to begin tackling this issue.
In July 2016, the foundation hosted an initial workshop for basic science funders. This workshop was designed to both provide a forum for engaging in discussions on impact in basic science as well as enable the sharing of knowledge, challenges and opportunities in assessing the impact of basic science philanthropy. Representatives from nine philanthropic organizations attended. Participants expressed a strong interest in continuing the conversation. In response to this interest, a second workshop was held in November 2016, and was attended by representatives from twelve funding organizations. At the workshop, participants dove deeper into methodologies for evaluating basic science investments by sharing current practices, discussing the building blocks of a monitoring, evaluation and learning framework, and engaging in conversations about methods and measures.
The key themes and lessons from the workshop are outlined in the brief here.