The Outsized Impact of Philanthropy on Biomedical Research


Philanthropist's Field Guide

The Outsized Impact of Philanthropy on Biomedical Research

Several organizations and groups within the philanthropic sector have made invaluable contributions to advance biomedical research. Individual philanthropists, too, can jump-start new models of innovation that empower and accelerate progress in medical research and development (R&D). Indeed, philanthropy already has and continues to have a tremendous impact on medical research by closing critical funding gaps, improving research culture, and driving fundamental systems change.

scientist using a dropper to transfer liquid into test tubes


Historically, philanthropists have contributed to advancing biomedical research by:

  • developing talent, particularly with training and career development opportunities

  • advancing basic research: growing knowledge and expanding scientific disciplines 

  • encouraging innovation and nurturing discoveries into new cures or therapies within translational and clinical research 

  • establishing partnerships to promote product development

  • disseminating information and data to encourage collaboration

  • championing patient engagement practices

  • lobbying for resources and policy changes

What are the different stages of biomedical research, and how can philanthropy help?

Philanthropy can make a difference throughout all three biomedical research stages:  

  • Discovery Research, or “basic research,” is hypothesis-driven and hypothesis-generating research carried out for the advancement of knowledge, without necessarily knowing its potential application to practical problems. Discovery research traditionally has been conducted by academic research centers, government institutes, and some stand-alone nonprofit research institutions.

    • By focusing on academic centers and nonprofit institutions that have strong policies in place to facilitate translation of discovery research into real benefit for patients, philanthropists can maximize the impact of their discovery dollars. For donors without technical knowledge, human resources, and financial capital to access recipients on an individual basis, giving through nonprofit medical foundations provides an opportunity to leverage an already established approach to ensure that funding is allocated well.  

  • Translational Research bridges the gap between promising discoveries in the laboratory and their testing in the clinic. Translational research is critical to developing therapeutics that can be tested in human subjects. Consequently, iterative refinement often defines this phase of R&D. For-profit companies, as well as nonprofit research and academic institutions, conduct this translational research.

    • Philanthropists can give through nonprofit organizations that support translational research. In addition to funding product-focused R&D, philanthropists can also have an impact on translational research by supporting efforts to improve the tools and resources available to researchers. 

  • Clinical Research is research on human subjects typically aiming toward approved products for use in patients. Clinical trials determine whether a particular product is safe and effective in patients and provide information on potential adverse reactions or side effects. Clinical research is conducted in a wide variety of settings where investigators have access to a patient population, human biological specimens, or clinical data. These include academic health centers, private research institutes, government laboratories, public and private hospitals, practice- or insurance-based research networks, public health departments, and community health centers.

    • Although the pharmaceutical industry invests heavily in clinical research, these funds are not always distributed according to the level of patient need. Many diseases lack sufficient investment incentives from companies that are ultimately responsible for their bottom line. Philanthropic investment in clinical development of new drugs and vaccines for rare and neglected diseases can help advance life-saving products through the pipeline and create incentives for investment where they otherwise may not exist.

    • Philanthropic investments in clinical research can also support the development of critical tools and infrastructure, such as clinical trial networks and patient registries.

You may also want to consider investments in training and career development opportunities to attract and empower new scientists to conduct research across the three stages or in pursuit of new treatments for a specific disease or condition. 

While government funding in the United States largely supports basic science, foundation and other philanthropic funding sources have a comparative advantage by providing a longer timeline, deploying awards on a rolling basis, funding work to test novel hypotheses, and establishing large, multi‐institution research teams, among others. Additionally, philanthropic capital can be a game‐changer for nascent fields that are not competitive for most established funding sources.

What impact can philanthropy have on biomedical research?

While federal funders tend to be the primary funders for early, exploratory research within biomedical science, philanthropic investment in medical research can help generate preliminary data to make projects and labs competitive for federal dollars. What’s more, philanthropy is well-suited to provide capital to fund high-risk but potentially high-reward investments. These can be investments in interventions or infrastructure that advance a potential product, move a field of research forward, and increase the likelihood of investment from other parties. Because of their flexibility and focus on outcomes, private capital can have an outsized impact on these research imperatives despite controlling only a small share (~4 percent) of overall spending on medical R&D.

How can you maximize the return on biomedical philanthropic investments?

To build a high-impact medical philanthropic portfolio, first, establish a clear understanding of the major components of the R&D lifecycle. It is also important to remember that not all research entities are created equal. Scientific funding should be vetted against standard due diligence practices as well as deeper review of the scientific opportunity. Generally, scientists are best positioned to provide review of the proposed project for rigor, feasibility, and impact. Many disease-focused nonprofits have built internal infrastructure to provide this additional review so that you can maximize the impact of your investments. 

Case Study: Philanthropy’s Role in Shedding Light on a Mysterious Condition

As many as one in five people report feelings of rage, disgust, fear, or anxiety when they hear certain sounds associated with chewing, sniffling, tapping, or clicking. However, some experience severe physical and/or emotional responses to these sounds, leaving them unable to spend time with family, maintain social relationships, or even go to school. The condition, known as misophonia, was named at the turn of this century. 

Following their daughter’s struggle with misophonia, Steve and Diane Miller, founders of the REAM Foundation, embarked on a journey to advance the science behind this under-recognized condition. In partnership with the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy (CSP), the foundation underwrote research resulting in a landscape analysis that found a lack of scientific consensus around the very definition of the condition, a highly fragmented field, and a dearth of funding by the major funders of US research, including the National Institutes of Health. The research identified several avenues where philanthropic capital could have an outsized impact on the field. These include investment and support for fundamental studies, development of diagnostic tools, funding of clinical trials, and supporting greater collaboration and interdisciplinary research, among others.

The REAM Foundation has since established a global funding announcement focused on misophonia to characterize the condition, develop diagnostic tools, and fund clinical or model studies of specific interventions. The foundation continues to advance the field of misophonia, including convening scientists to present research plans and identify opportunities for future collaboration.

Additional Resources:

CSP has developed numerous resources to advance biomedical philanthropy.

Published September 23, 2020