Nonprofit Research Institutions: A Beacon For The Future Of The Scientific Enterprise

Independent scientific research institutions are at an inflection point, argue Carnegie President Eric D. Isaacs and Salk Institute President Fred H. Gage in a joint essay in Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly magazine published by Arizona State University and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
An overhead shot of the Broad Branch Road campus in autumn.

Carnegie and other privately funded organizations drove discovery in the first half of the 20th century, until the war effort of the 1940s inspired U.S. President Roosevelt and the-Carnegie President Vannevar Bush to advance an unprecedented program of federal support for basic scientific research. Isaacs and Gage explain that this post-war development gave institutions like Carnegie and Salk, which was founded in 1960, the freedom to fund creative, unconventional inquiries—such as Vera Rubin’s research on the rotation curves of galaxies or Renato Dulbecco’s study of oncogenes.

“By providing scientists with the time necessary to pursue promising ideas, these organizations make sure that important new lines of research are not interrupted or even abandoned because of politically motivated funding shifts,” they write.  
Today, Isaacs and Gage say, nonprofit research organizations must once again be prepared to pivot on the axes of their longstanding strengths and rise to meet the greatest challenges facing humankind. Fortunately, according to the two presidents, independent research institutions were built to thrive in the interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to research that is necessary to reveal the complexities of our world—a pressing need in the face of global climate change and global pandemics.

“These institutions’ independent status allows them to remain true to their founders’ insistence on the central importance of fundamental research, driven by curiosity and undertaken without immediate need to establish its practical use or relevance,” write Isaacs and Gage. “In an increasingly impatient and utilitarian world, independent research organizations bear a deep historical responsibility to keep on interrogating the fundamental mysteries of life and the universe.”