Marc Kastner

Marc Kastner

Kay Herschelmann

Billionaires for basic research

After 42 years of doing atomic physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and 16 years as an MIT administrator, Marc Kastner knows intimately both the value of basic research—and how to convince rich people to foster its growth at a premier research institution. Yesterday he announced he was leaving MIT for a job that will give him the chance to make the case on a national scale.

Kastner is the first president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a new effort by six foundations to boost private giving to basic science research, which is largely conducted at universities. The alliance has set itself the 5-year goal of boosting such giving by $1 billion a year—an estimated 50% jump over current levels, although Kastner admits that there are no good baseline numbers.

Philanthropy will never replace U.S. government support for basic research, Kastner says. But what he calls a “tilt” in federal support toward applied research over basic science has created a “desperation situation” for academic researchers that “in my view, is probably the worst since the Second World War.”

The members of the alliance—the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; the Kavli, Simons, and Sloan foundations; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement—want to ease that crisis by getting more people and organizations to emulate what they are already doing: giving money to the nation’s universities for basic science. The effort is meant to complement rather than compete with the multibillion-dollar campaigns by those academic institutions. And Kastner says he doesn’t mind if success allows already relatively wealthy institutions to get richer. “It’s better to have 30 universities that are great than to have all of them struggling,” he argues.

Kastner was available after the U.S. Senate failed to act on his long-delayed nomination to lead the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) $5 billion Office of Science. President Barack Obama chose Kastner in November 2013, but the previous Congress adjourned in December without taking a vote. Observers think it’s unlikely that the president will put forward another name before he leaves office in January 2017.

“Obviously, I would not have been able to accept this job if I had been at DOE,” Kastner says. “But having not been confirmed, this opportunity was too good to pass up.”

Kastner begins work on 15 March in Palo Alto, California. He’ll be sharing space with the Moore Foundation until he can hire a small staff and move the alliance into its own office.