The High-Stakes World of Foundation Dollars

Research Funding

Economic tides may have the most obvious impact on higher education giving. But for social scientists seeking research support, windshifts in public interest often signal more lasting changes.

Professors in government, history, economics and other such fields receive the large part of their research funds from private foundations. These organizations, unlike the government agencies that support most pure science projects, are often buffered against economic fluctuations by conservative investment strategies.

Yet foundations have their own kinds of fluctuations, as they often shift priorities to meet changes in the public interest and in organizational goals.

"Foundations have been the major supporters [for the social sciences]," says Professor of Government Joseph S. Nye, who is also associate dean for international affairs. He says these private organizations account for about 95 percent of more than $3.5 million in grants received yearly at Harvard's Center for International Affairs (CFIA), which he directs.

Harvard has typically done well in the competition for foundation dollars. Non-federal money accounted for slightly more than one-quarter of the University's annual research grants in 1989. That year, Harvard received about $67 million from corporations, foundations and other universities.

And over the past few years, more and more professors are applying for foundation monies, even as the fields of foundation interest continue to change.

It is these shifting priorities that many scholars say has over time helped set the direction for faculty research in the social sceinces.

"[Foundations] tend to have initiatives to deal with problems that they think are terribly important," says Paul C. Martin '52, chair of Harvard's committee on research policy and dean of the Division of Applied Sciences. "They typically have big programs with themes."

These themes in turn reflect deeper strategies that foundations often develop to help guide their funding support.

Looking back at the last few decades in foundation interests, Huntington says many organizations supported international studies in the 1960s, when the Cold War era spurred concern for security issues. In the 1970s, amid Vietnam War protests and economic decline, many foundations changed that focus, shifting to urban and domestic issues.

Yet by the 1980s, with the Reagan era and renewed Cold War concerns, Huntington says support for defense policy research and international affairs reemerged. And for the future, some professors say a focus on global environment and economics will be attractive to foundation funders.


Despite national political changes, scholars say most foundations remain on a general course that reflects their political, cultural and social agendas.

"There's a widespread view that mainstream, large foundations have been liberal in their concerns," Huntington says. The John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Smith-Richardson Foundation are often perceived as more conservative, he adds.

"There are some foundations that have extreme political slants," says Huntington. Referring to a left-leaning organization, Huntington says, "the last thing in the world they would do is give money to me, for example."