UPDATED: April 15, 2014, at 5:30 p.m.
The Pershing Square Foundation, a family-based philanthropic organization, announced a $17 million gift to the University Monday to fund an interfaculty initiative that will investigate the driving forces of human behavior.
The initiative, entitled the Harvard Foundations of Human Behavior, will use the gift to endow three new professorships and establish a $5 million research venture fund that will award grants to Harvard faculty and graduate students.
Spearheaded by behavioral economist David Laibson, the FHB supports interdisciplinary research in fields that range from biology to psychology to economics. It also facilitates the design and discovery of “cost-effective, scalable interventions that improve societal well-being,” Laibson said in a press release.
The Pershing Square Foundation, which was founded in 2006 by Bill Ackman '88 and his wife, Karen Ackman '93, supports social innovations geared towards sustainable impact. Paul Bernstein, the CEO of the Pershing Square Foundation, noted that the organization has a three-pronged mission.
“One is backing exceptional people,” Bernstein said. “Second is backing those people with ideas to implement the often disruptive but best innovations, which leads to the third thing, which is scalable impact.”
As Bernstein explained, scaling innovations—growing ventures to extend their impact—is relatively rare among existing philanthropies.
“We’re really interested in carving out that niche and being able to drive some of that impact that comes from scaling ventures,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein noted that he hoped that recent donation would facilitate two goals.
First, the Foundation aims to attract the most talented minds to delve further into interdisciplinary behavioral science at Harvard.
The first of three Pershing Square professorships has already been awarded to Matthew Rabin, a behavioral economist who will join the economics faculty this summer. He studies the economics of individual self-control, errors in probabilistic reasoning, and fairness motives.
The second mission of the Foundation, Bernstein said, centers on the research fund, which will award grants to ideas and ventures that address challenges ranging from poverty among farmers and students to the spread of epidemics in rural communities.
According to Bernstein, the Foundation prizes ideas that will have the potential to affect worldwide change and connect individuals across the University.
“We’re looking especially for projects that entail collaboration across all of Harvard,” he said.
Collaboration is a key word for the partnership between the Foundation and Harvard. Since Harvard already has several established social entrepreneurial groups and research laboratories that study human behavior and societal interaction, Bernstein noted that the FHB initiative will work inside the existing framework rather than implement its own system of awarding grants.
“This should be an initiative, rather than something that builds another center with its own function, precisely with the goal of maximizing relationship-building with other programs,” Bernstein said.
The Pershing Square Foundation has given out $235 million in grants and social investments since its founding eight years ago. Yet, Bernstein noted that the new Harvard program promises to fulfill a unique niche.
“There is so much potential when we develop at somewhere as important and special as Harvard a cross-disciplinary academic discipline on something as important as human behavior,” Bernstein said.
The Pershing Square gift also includes $4 million to endow a chair in global health for University professor Paul E. Farmer, as well as $5 million for the men's crew team.
—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@jessicabarzilay.