Our Discovery Grants program supported promising approaches to important social problems and other transformative projects that did not fit within our existing programs and strategies. It began in early 2012 as an effort to help us become more receptive to good ideas that would explore new areas of work, whatever their source. Between 2012 and 2015, we made 35 awards to 34 projects and organizations and considered more than 150 other ideas offered by staff, Board members, current and past grantees, academics, students, and entrepreneurs.
The Discovery Grants program sought a range of perspectives and drew from a cross-Foundation committee to incorporate them into its work. The Discovery Grants Committee included participants from all areas of the Foundation at that time. This diversity of perspectives was integral to the tone and culture of the effort, developed a wide range of possibilities, and informed decisions about project selection and funding.
A grant to the Lady Mechanic Initiative supported a project to help women acquire economically valuable skills in male dominated professions in Nigeria.
Discovery Grants had a set of general aspirations—to be open to risk, to make intelligent exceptions, to be more responsive to new people and possibilities, and to provide some peripheral vision as complement to the focus of programs. Based on broad agreement that Discovery Grants should support promising approaches to important social problems and that awards should go to projects that did not fit into our existing programs and strategies, we developed five criteria for support:
- Important—addresses an important social issue in a domain in which the Foundation can have an impact;
- Timely—responds to an urgent problem or opportunity;
- Testable—promises definite results, for example a prototype or other proof of concept, with outcomes that can be assessed;
- Bold—ambitious but prepared to learn from interesting failure; and
- Anticipatory—showing awareness of future trends and needs.
A grant to the Equitable Food Initiative supported a voluntary certification program for labor standards, food safety, and safe pesticide use in the fresh produce industry.
Discovery Grants helped us see patterns and types of problems philanthropy might address, including encouraging better corporate behavior; closing the gap between technologists and policymakers; solving collective action dilemmas; building observational systems; and investing in other than 501c(3) organizations.
Many Discovery Grants were awarded to organizations that had not received institutional funding before and subsequently led to further support from other grantmaking organizations. Other projects grew remarkably in scope or scale. The Human Vaccines Project has received more than $20 million in funding from other sources; the Justice Entrepreneurs Project has been replicated in other cities; Edovo has gone on to raise more than $10 million and now operates in 20 states and in over 50 facilities and has served educational materials to over 50,000 people.
We found that open calls for ideas without thematic restrictions can lead to effective and unexpected grants and projects. Several grants stimulated new thinking, broke new ground, or advanced and improved the quality of debate. These included awards for the first major public discussion of the gene editing technology CRISPR, the first academic center focused on the sociology of masculinity, and a series of grants about drones and robotics.
A full summary of the program is contained in our paper, Reflections on Discovery Grants.
Human Gene Editing - A new report by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine says clinical trials for heritable genome editing could be permitted in the future, but only for serious conditions under stringent oversight.
Masculinity Studies - Michael Kimmel, Author and Founder of The Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, Stony Brook, is interviewed by Tiffany Shlain.
Open Access Week - Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch discusses a ten-fold increase in retractions, the reasons for that increase, whether fraud is on the rise, the growth of post-publication peer review, and other trends.