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I'm lucky - I probably won't have to provide for any loved ones after I die (they can take care of themselves). That means I can use my assets on whatever I want, and most likely, that will be science. The exact amount I can spare depends on how much longer I have to live, but an order of magnitude estimate is $10 million.

I understand that most funding requires proposals from the scientists, which are then peer reviewed. I'm not particularly interested in that. Instead I'm thinking of finding people working on what I'm most interested in (cosmology) and funding them to do whatever they want, trusting in their integrity to use the funds appropriately.

Questions:

  1. Is it better to use the funds as a one-shot lump sum, or make it sustainable (that is, keep the principal, and use only the interest on that for funding)?
  2. What is a good amount to provide a single professor? Is it better to provide one researcher with the $10 million, or ten different researchers with $1 million, or some other number?
  3. How do I go about this? Can I just ask for the professors' bank account numbers, and write in my will to transfer $X into that account?
  4. I'd like to talk to the professors, preferably face-to-face, to assess their character. Are the professors likely to be willing to talk?

EDIT: Thanks for answers. I'll need to think about it. I'm not keen on funding PhD students since there're already too many graduates and too few permanent positions. I'm also not keen on funding a fellowship because when I wrote my own applications there were so very many fellowships, many of which required their own separate application. I'm hoping to make things easy.

I also want to free some scientists from spending so much of their time writing funding proposals. Endowing a chair is a possibility but that ties the money to a single university, which is again something I need to think about. Hopefully there'll be many more years before I die to sort all these out, and thanks again for answers.

10 Answers 10

59

Funding people instead of projects is in fact a good idea if you are interested in a supporting fundamental research problems to be addressed. There are multiple ways to go about this, and it's a reasonably well established principle, so you might want to search around a bit how other funding organizations and (non-profit) foundations approach this.

  1. Lump sum vs. funding from interest is really a choice between aiming at one or two breakthroughs within a period of 5 to 10 years vs. continuously supporting research in a specific field, on a smaller scale, over 50 to 100 years. This relates to the answer of the next questions...
  2. Amount to give to a single professor: A strategy for short term funding (using up the capital) would be to fund the establishment of a new research group, i.e., pay the salary of someone early in their career (assistant or associate professor level) plus some funds for research staff (PhD students and post-docs). I would recommend a funding level of $2M (that is what the Consolidator Grant of the European Research Council provides for a period of 5 years) to $5M per professor, depending on how much expensive equipment and materials are needed to do this research. That means you could fund 2 to 5 such groups. After the period of funding at that level, these persons should have achieved sufficient research results to be self-sustainable, though you cannot be sure that they will continue working on the kind of questions you aimed to fund. For long term funding, I would recommend donating the whole sum as a Financial endowment (see Endowed professorships) to one university. If you assume an interest rate of 1 %, it will pay $100k per year, which might be just enough to pay a professor's salary, or, if the university agrees to pay the professor, could be used to fund 1 - 2 PhD students or post-docs working with the professor.
  3. How to spend the money: Don't transfer that money to a professor's private account. Professors get research budgets from their universities, and if the funder wants to, the spending restrictions can be extremely flexible while still making sure that the money is only used on research related costs. So you either need to make an agreement with a university for them to administer the money according to the stipulations you agree on, or set up a foundation that administers the money and pays it to universities, who then put it in the research budget of the professors that it's meant to support. For the first option, you may want to contact a university's alumni or financial office, or maybe the dean of a department in the area you'd like to support.
  4. Don't plan to select the persons you're funding yourself. First, it's better to fund young researchers, and if you talk to potential candidates while you still can do it, I'd hope that these will be old, or at least senior researchers, by the time the money becomes available. Instead, choose the persons that will do the selection. In the endowment case, that would be the university department that gets the endowment. Make sure that the general research direction and overall functioning of the department fits to your aims, and only select them if you're reasonably confident that they will use the money according to your aims. In the non-profit foundation case, I'd suggest setting up an advisory board with reputable scientists in the field you'd like to fund, and let them run the selection. Keep in mind that the composition of this group (institutions they come from, character, etc.) will be an important factor in who they select for funding. If this is going to operate over a longer time, make sure that there are regulations in place how new persons can enter the advisory board when you won't be there anymore.
  • I'm just curious if those start up funds are specific to cosmology or across fields? – Azor Ahai Feb 9 '18 at 17:33
  • Thanks for the answer. Can you clarify why it's not a good idea to select the persons I'll fund myself? I have some knowledge of cosmology, and besides since it's so hard to become a professor, I imagine that any professor at any major university would be suitable. – Allure Feb 9 '18 at 20:28
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    @Allure I am not sure I agree with the argument not to choose the people oneself, provided one has a sufficiently deep understanding of the matter to judge whether the work of these people goes in the direction one supports. However, one should have a mechanism in place to replace these people should they become unavailable. – Captain Emacs Feb 9 '18 at 20:50
  • What does "fundamental research problems to be addressed" mean exactly? – Pharap Feb 11 '18 at 23:19
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    @Allure Even if you know the research field well, it seems better not to have a lot of time between selection of the researcher to fund and the start of the actual funding. So it depends a lot on when you are expecting to die (which I hoped was not too soon). – silvado Feb 12 '18 at 7:13
24

You are in a fortunate position, and so are the ones who may benefit from your generosity.

I imagine that you will have no problem getting people to talk to you. As far as modalities are concerned, the easiest way to find out how to do this best is probably to talk to someone in the "development office" of university of your choice. Just transferring the money into a professor's bank account is not a winning strategy, because that person might have to pay taxes and you'd have no guarantee that the money is actually spent on research (as opposed to a nice vacation in the Caribbean). On the other hand, development offices are well equipped to deal with donors. Options include making your money a "no strings attached" grant to an individual professor, endowing a "chair", or endowing fellowships for graduate students or postdocs in a particular area of research -- in essence, universities will be very happy to take your money, but you can set the conditions on how it will be used. All of this includes helping you draft details of these arrangements that will then become part of your will and that will be executed when the time comes.

If you talk to someone in a research university's development office, you will find out that your situation is more common than you may think. Your contacts there will have seen every variation of arrangements and should be able to help you find ways to achieve what you want!

18

One suggestion to consider is endowing a Professorial chair. The cost of this I believe is something like $5 million.

The university would take care of the administration and it would be an ongoing contribution to science. It would also be clear where the money is going -- the Professor's salary. This is different to making a more nebulous donation.

You can choose the area the chair should be in and its name. Potentially you could have some limited input into selecting the inaugural holder of the chair.

You would need to approach the department/university to explore this option. But bear in mind that you need to convince them that you are serious about donating.

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    “Potentially you could have some limited input into selecting the inaugural holder of the chair.“ sure, if you can predict the time of your death. – DonQuiKong Feb 9 '18 at 9:19
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    @DonQuiKong Or if you donate the money before you actually die, which is what usually happens. – David Richerby Feb 9 '18 at 11:31
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    @DavidRicherby but not what op asked ;) – DonQuiKong Feb 9 '18 at 12:48
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    @RichardErickson The $5 million figure was for Harvard computer science, but I can't find the reference anymore. I think it will vary widely even within a single university. – Thomas Feb 9 '18 at 17:41
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    @DonQuiKong It's called a bequest. Conditions like who should be the initial holder are written into an agreement, then the agreement is added to the will, so the transfer of assets only occurs after death. Universities are often willing to treat an irrevocable bequest as a donation that has already occurred, e.g. naming buildings while the donor is alive. – user71659 Feb 9 '18 at 17:49
9

The best thing you could do is to contact a university Development Office - they deal with all kinds of donations for research and will be able to develop some interesting options for you.

The amount you need to give to achieve different things will differ university to university. If you get in touch and express your interest in giving to Cosmology, a Development Officer can come and speak with you about your preferences and the logistics of giving (including how endowing positions works and how payments are made). They will typically write you a proposal covering all of these things and introduce you to relevant academics, and eventually, if it's the right project for you, be able to put together a gift agreement which sets out your expectations and theirs. If you intend to make the gift in your life time the university will want to build a good relationship with you, include you in the life and work of the institution and report to you on what your gift has achieved.

It's worth noting that you don't need to fund a specific person, you can always fund a particular post (for example, a professor in cosmology or some graduate scholarships to work in a certain area) which can be held by a succession of people over decades. You can also pledge a certain amount and then fulfil that pledge over an extended period of time. FYI if you endow a post typically the institute will invest the capital to generate an annual return of anything from 4% upwards which would be the annual 'spend' (i.e in the case of a post, the salary of that person).

I would suggest in the first instance identifying a few universities who undertake work you're interested in, and then contacting the Development Office to see what they can do. The bigger universities in the US and UK in particular are very familiar with this kind of funding.

I work as a Development Officer for a university in the UK so this information is based on my professional experience.

Good luck, and I hope you find a project that you feel is really worthwhile.

5

You should find people/organizations who have done this in the past and see what they did and how it's working/not working, and if you can get them to open up, see if these people/organizations will provide advice for you. Specifically for cosmology:

  • The Simons Foundation, which recently founded the Center for Computational Astrophysics (which has the "Cosmology X Data Science" group as one of its groups) and is providing funding the Simons Observatory, which has various cosmology telescopes in operation and planned
  • The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a particularly old foundation that (among other things) has helped fund the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Sloan fellowships, among which cosmologists are recipients

In addition to seeing how these foundations do things, it may be possible that you could donate your money directly to them, which might be a relatively simple option to make sure your funds get managed properly. I do not know at all how these foundations are set up and if they accept donations.

Beyond that, I think the best option would be to seek out a lawyer that specializes in such things and ask their advice on the best and most effective thing to do with your money.

And thanks! Though I do not work in cosmology, my work in astrophysics has been greatly enhanced by data obtain through projects that were partly funded by private money. Astrophysics in particular has benefited greatly from wealthy benefactors.

3

As it's your money, other people can only offer opinions. You might consider that

  1. A sustainable endowment will cost money to manage.
  2. The more researchers you fund, the more paperwork will be required. Organizations that give a lot of money usually use a mixture of strategies, so they must think there is no one correct answer.
  3. Details change over time, so leave this to the executor of your estate.
  4. Probably they will be willing to talk to you, but they prefer to be assessed by experts in their field, not unknown people.

Nearly all funding goes to institutions for management on behalf of an individual, not directly to individuals.

2

Don't do the dividing yourself. Let someone else do it. Or let an organization that you trust do it, doesn't have to be a big one either - it may be better to go with a smaller one so that they will honor you and spend the money more how you would of liked it to be spent

  • Or make your own organization – user1886419 Feb 9 '18 at 7:56
  • OP made clear that they do not trust peer review. I think selecting a person (a group of persons) to endow and then make sure that there is an organisation/institution managing the money that makes sure that money is spent on eligible expenses (PhDs, conference travels etc.) is probably what they are looking for. – Captain Emacs Feb 9 '18 at 10:37
  • @CaptainEmacs I don't follow how that is not what I suggested :S – user1886419 Feb 9 '18 at 19:27
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    It's not that I don't trust peer review, it's that I want to avoid it. A common complaint among scientists is that they spend too much time putting together proposals, most of which don't succeed. I can't change how science works at large, but I want to free some scientists from this obligation. – Allure Feb 9 '18 at 19:36
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    @Allure I think I understand you. You should make sure, though, that you specify what happens if the people you select are not available anymore and how to prevent that money gets just burned (yes, it does happen, or sometimes the institutions people work for demand a portion of the money as overheads). Also, too much money at once may be a problem - research mostly plays the long game (with exceptions), so it may be wiser to stretch the program over time. E.g. 6 postdocs over 10 years typically beats 20 postdocs over 3 years if we talk about funding individuals rather than departments. – Captain Emacs Feb 9 '18 at 19:44
2

Just a thought: If you want to reduce the amount of work for funding proposals and also do not want to tie your money to a single chair/faculty, you could also establish a price.

A committee could choose "the best paper in cosmology" every year and offer 50.000$ to the author(s). This would be nearly no bureaucracy for the scientists and you would be sure that the money goes to people with interesting, new research.

  • Do scientists usually use prize money for further research? If not, a prize doesn't seem like funding science - it's more of a reward for a job well done. – Allure Feb 13 '18 at 1:02
  • I think it is important that the prize money is given to sufficiently young scientists (not like the Nobel prize) who are still active. More like the Fields medal, which you can only win if you are less than forty years of age. Additionally, you can apply the same restrictions as for funding and decide that the money can only be spend for research purposes. – J. Fabian Meier Feb 13 '18 at 8:07
2

To add an alternative, consider investing in things that universities and national funds neglect, that is still useful or essential for research. I am a mathematician and use a lot of software. MathOverflow, OEIS, FindStat and Wikipedia are essential tools in my research, and help hundreds to millions of people. Developing things like FindStat and other databases requires high knowledge of the field, as well as programming skills. However, such development is not considered as 'fancy' as publications, so it is a risk to devote time to software projects as a mathematician.

Hiring developers or otherwise contribute with server costs for such projects would be a nice gesture. Or, simply ask 100 researchers to improve wikipedia articles and paying them a small sum.

What about funding a conference, where each participant can choose from a list of wiki pages that needs to be expanded (related to their field), and doing this is a prerequisite for attending?

  • very very very good idea. free software. – SSimon Feb 13 '18 at 13:07
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    Good ideas. Updating Wikipedia is probably not happening (because of Wikipedia's conflict-of-interest policies) but I'll think about the others. – Allure Feb 13 '18 at 21:06
1

Out of interest the university in the UK I work at takes about 30% of any grants to cover "overheads". I would assume it would be the same for any donations.

It might be worth checking in your country but I do not know if there would be a way around it.

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