'Without basic research we are toast'
These were the words of Antoine van Agtmael, who also coined the phrase “emerging markets” and built a successful investment firm around the concept. Van Agtmael was speaking at a recent event we hosted with the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership to discuss his new book The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation.
There was a vigorous discussion of how Indianapolis compared to other emerging rustbelt metropolises in combining university research with smart manufacturing technologies and open, collaborative partnerships among firms and across sectors, facilitated by entrepreneurial and community-minded “connectors.” Many of these connectors could seek their fortune in any of the world’s recognized hot spots, but instead they remain committed to enhancing the talent base of their community. It is because they seem to be motivated and inspired by philanthropy that we wanted to co-host this book talk in Indianapolis.
The discussion also focused on an important requirement for the new innovation hubs described in van Agtmael’s book: they all rely on the U.S.’s world-leading commitment to basic research, the kind that is purely exploratory and whose ultimate applications are not yet known. No other country comes close to the government-funded commitment, supported by philanthropy and industry, to the kind of pure research that led to the Laser, the Internet and the description of DNA – discoveries that today continue to enable a profusion of inventions.
This basic research, which is under severe pressure in our time of governmental austerity and in which philanthropists can and are working to fill some significant gaps, is indispensable to the ecosystem of innovation that continues to transform our daily lives. Without this basic research, as van Agtmeal says, “we are toast.”
Interestingly enough, as a community, philanthropy has not paid much attention to basic research in our own field. We seem permanently impatient, grasping for the next effective application whose impact can be measured before the next board meeting. There is a flurry of novelty, from the tools with which we can develop relationships with each other, to clever ways of spanning the commercial, public and voluntary sectors. But often I wonder how much of this energy would be better directed if there were clearer understanding of what happened before.
Would it not be beneficial to the impatient entrepreneurs in philanthropy, as in the emerging tech hubs of our re-emerging cities, if there were a body of cumulative basic research, motivated by the puzzle of human philanthropy, that could undergird the brilliance of our social innovators?
The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is one outpost of basic research, vitally connected to the emerging generation by our growing body of exceptional students and mid-career professionals. We do produce the annual “GDP of giving” in the United States, Giving USA, with Giving USA Foundation, and we steward a powerful source of data on U.S. households in the Philanthropy Panel Study, complemented by a growing body of historical, humanistic, social scientific, experimental and even neurological studies that shine ever more light on the human impulse to give, to help, to craft new connections.
But, you may ask, how will this help me structure the next impact investment in my town to bring greater resources to the communities with pressing needs? But this question is as misdirected as the one that asks basic scientific research to demonstrate its relevance to current technology.
Imagine asking questions about how to deliver information through the mail or the telegram before there was the Internet and the omnipresent, connected computer in everyone’s hands. There are unimagined means to newly understood ends that await us as a result of basic research into the fundamental questions of why people give.
Remember that science fiction imagined many of our contemporary social changes long before the actual technologies were available. In this context, think of the public policy conversations we are having as more and more people do not participate in the workforce. Some experts believe this will become a permanent condition as robots take on more “work” functions. As jobs diminish as a source of our sense of worth and dignity, how we measure our contributions to our communities and our time on earth may well become more about how we choose to exercise our philanthropic faculties.
Are we ready for this kind of eventuality? Our school is working to conduct and support basic research in philanthropy and we seek new friends and allies in this quest on a daily basis. We prefer our philanthropy untoasted.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean