This week, host Kristin Hayes talks with Evan Michelson, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who oversees the foundation’s energy and environment program. They discuss the world of energy and environmental research from a funder’s perspective: how philanthropies set funding priorities, how environmental philanthropy has evolved, and why research matters.
Listen to the Podcast
- Environmental groups historically don’t receive much philanthropic funding: “A lot of recent research has shown that a very small percentage of philanthropic dollars are going into energy and the environment and climate change, which seems hard to believe, but it's true. Across the landscape, not only are energy and environment underrepresented in terms of where foundations put their resources, but an even smaller fraction ... of dollars is going into research.” (7:30)
- Early-career academics these days are interdisciplinary: “There’s a whole new cadre and cohort of early-career faculty that are coming up to the ranks that aren't just trained in one particular discipline. They’ve got data science skills. They've got policy analysis skills. They've got economic skills. They are interested in bringing the research into the decisionmaking process. That's different than it was a number of decades ago.” (18:59)
- With freedom comes responsibility: “One of the interesting things about the way foundations work is that we have a lot of degrees of freedom to operate. To allocate those resources well, foundations have to think long and hard about their mission, their values, and their goals—and their processes have to reflect that. That’s a potential trap that some foundations fall into: not thinking hard enough about how they're going to deploy their resources in the most socially responsible way.” (22:56)
Top of the Stack
- Philanthropy and the Future of Science and Technology by Evan Michelson
- The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions: Rethinking the Nature and Nurture of Research by Venkatesh Narayanamurti and Jeffrey Y. Tsao
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. My guest today is Evan Michelson, program director for the Energy and Environment Program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Evan joined the Sloan Foundation over eight years ago after previous positions as a director at the Markle Foundation and an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation. Before moving into philanthropy, Evan worked as a researcher and program manager at a number of scientific and policy organizations.
Today, Evan and I are discussing the world of energy and environmental research from a funder's perspective. We'll touch on how grantmakers think about priority-setting, how the world of environmental philanthropy has evolved, and why research matters. Stay with us.
Hi, Evan. It's really nice to have you here with me today on Resources Radio.
Evan Michelson: Hi, Kristin. Thanks for having me and great to be here.
Kristin Hayes: I rattled off a few of your previous roles in my introduction, but I always want to give the guests themselves a platform to share more color on how you ended up where you are, working at this intersection of energy, environment, and philanthropy. Can you give a flavor of how you've ended up at the Sloan Foundation?
Evan Michelson: Like a lot of people that are in the philanthropic sector, I took a winding path to get here. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, which, while seemingly unrelated, has been a wonderful background to have working in the philanthropic space. I've always had an interest in thinking about big-picture questions and how the world might evolve over the coming years. I found myself more and more drawn to thinking about those big questions with respect to energy and the environment and climate change, because that is perhaps the most challenging issue humanity will face over the coming decades.
I found myself thinking about the ways in which I wanted to address those questions and topics and always thought that my own interest and skill set was best suited to helping other people figure out how to do research better. I had the opportunity to move into the philanthropic space a number of years ago and found that it was something that I enjoyed and enjoy thinking about how to make research better and more productive and more impactful. I was lucky enough to find myself at the Sloan Foundation, where we do a lot of amazing work not just on energy and the environment, but across a whole range of social science and natural science topic areas. I'm fortunate to be here.
Kristin Hayes: That's great and a nice lead into hearing more about the foundation, too. I'll admit, before I came to Resources for the Future (RFF), I wasn't particularly familiar with the work of the foundation. I'd heard about it via its support of National Public Radio, but I didn't know a lot about the topic areas and the kind of types of interventions or activities that the foundation was funding.
In case our listeners might be in that same boat, can you share the foundation's history and where you focus your attention, either within the energy and environment program, or on some of those broader areas of interest you were mentioning?
Evan Michelson: The Sloan Foundation was started in 1934 by Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., who had a interest in science and economics. That interest has permeated the work of the Sloan Foundation throughout our nearly 90-year history. Many people are familiar with the Sloan Foundation through our support for work related to the public understanding of science, technology, and economics, in addition to supporting work on radio and television and the movies. We support a number of books, like the book Hidden Figures, which many people might be familiar with. But for those in the academic community, many people who do research tend to be familiar through the Sloan Foundation through a number of other programs that we have.
We have the Sloan Research Fellowships, which we've been awarding for decades to some of the most promising scholars in economics and many fields of basic science and mathematics. We have a number of programs now that run the gamut. As you mentioned, I oversee our energy and environment grantmaking. We give grants to a large-scale astronomical research program called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which was one of the first big data projects in the sciences. We have work that focuses on improving the diversity, equity, and inclusion and representation of scholars in science, technology, engineering and math research fields. We have work on data science. We have work on basic science at the intersection of biology and physics and a number of other programmatic areas, as well.
One of the best parts about being at the Sloan Foundation is that we really get to learn and have a bird's eye view to think about a wide range of topics across the social sciences and the natural sciences.
Kristin Hayes: You've already used the word research a number of times in our conversation. I want to hone in on that for a second because of something that you and I have talked about previously in other conversations, which is this landscape of research funding and, honestly, how research isn't always top of mind for private philanthropy. In other words, there aren't too many private funders and philanthropies like the Sloan Foundation that are invested in funding research. Feel free to correct me if you disagree with that assessment.
But if you do agree that it's a fairly limited range, I'm curious why you think that is and why the Sloan Foundation, aside from the interests of its founder, has chosen to invest in research for all of these years.
Evan Michelson: I think it is rather unusual for philanthropies to support research, whether it's in the natural sciences or the social sciences. I think that's because funding research and doing it well is quite challenging. It requires a level of expertise. It requires an ability to undertake high quality original data collection and analysis. Perhaps most importantly, it takes a lot of time. Paradoxically, one of the reasons why foundations tend not to support research is that they're looking for more immediate answers to questions, which I'm very sympathetic about and is important. But I think one of the benefits we have in working at a foundation is that we can take the long-term view.
I wish more foundations would fund research to be able to provide that long-term view in whatever field they're interested in, but particularly with respect to energy and the environment. There are numbers bandied about, but a lot of recent research has shown that a very small percentage of philanthropic dollars are going into energy and the environment and climate change, which seems hard to believe, but it's true. Across the landscape, not only are energy and environment underrepresented in terms of where foundations put their resources, but an even smaller fraction of that number of dollars is going into research.
That's one of the interesting and unique ways that our program at the Sloan Foundation is structured: We're really one of the only philanthropic funders dedicated to supporting research, training, and other evidence-based activities to help inform the societal transition toward low-carbon energy systems in the United States.
Kristin Hayes: I did want to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit more about your own role within the foundation and as program director. We're talking about the foundation and the good work it does. But, personally, I'd love to know more about your role and responsibilities. You've mentioned a couple parts of the job that are exciting for you—getting to learn about new areas of interest, getting to work across disciplines. But what else would you say is the most rewarding or exciting part of this job for you?
Evan Michelson: Being a program director at a foundation is a great role to have. In addition to learning about new things almost on a daily basis, I get to connect with interesting scholars and researchers both within our program and outside of our program to understand the cutting edge work that people are planning on doing.
As a program director, you are a jack of all trades, I would say. We do everything from reviewing proposal ideas, sourcing new proposal ideas, and going to conferences and meetings to understand what the state-of-the-art research is, to working with our partners both within the philanthropic sector, government, industry, and academia to help move a lot of high-quality research forward.
We do a bit of everything, and it's something that I'm excited about on a daily basis. In fact, I would say my favorite part of this job is that when I get to open up a new proposal that I haven't read yet on my computer, it's always an interesting and exciting window into the world. I get to help researchers move along that process and, especially for the work that we end up funding, to try to give some perspective and feedback on how to make that work better, structure that work better, and, perhaps, how to make connections with other work that's going on either within our program or outside of our program, or thinking about how to structure that research better to have more substantial impact.
Every day is a bit different, and every proposal is a bit different, and every project is a bit different, but I get to come into contact with folks that are deeply committed to making the world a better place. Given the changes that are happening now with respect to decarbonizing our energy system, there are so many passionate people that are looking to make a difference in the research community and to extend that research outside into the broader world. It's never a dull moment here.
Kristin Hayes: From an outsider's perspective, I have seen that bridge-building role that you in particular and counterparts in other places play, because you are at the epicenter of a lot of different ideas and a lot of different institutions. Your ability to look across a range of proposals on a similar topic and find the—to use a buzzword—synergies between them and find ways that disparate collaborators might be work together. I imagine that's fun, but it's also beneficial for the folks on the other side of that too, to have folks who sit at that intersection of lots of different people and grantees. We appreciate it too.
Evan Michelson: We're most able to help folks by providing funding. But even when we're not able to provide funding, in some cases, we really try to create opportunities for connection across institutions, fields, and sectors. There are a number of examples of that.
We have a collaboration with another foundation called Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which is based in Tucson, and we have a partnership with them called Scialog, which is a mashup of the word science and dialogue. All credit goes to Research Corporation for coming up with that, but they have this process that we've been a partner in for a number of years that brings a number of early-career faculty members together to do work on lots of different topic areas in the sciences. We've been partnering with them on a project related to advancing negative-emissions science. There, the process is one of getting people into an intellectual sandbox, if you will, and spending a few days working on different science ideas.
The focus of that gathering, which brings together early-career faculty from chemistry, biology, physics, atmospheric science, and geoscience, is to get them to put together potentially fundable ideas, where they work on a number of speculative high-risk, high-reward projects that they then propose to us and other funders. We end up selecting a handful for providing a small amount of seed funding. That's just one example, but there are a number of other opportunities and activities in the field that we're involved in and that other organizations are involved in that try to bring people together, bring researchers together, bring folks from different fields together.
It's something that we're able to do because we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with a number of researchers across different fields. It's one of the reasons why our energy and environment program at the Sloan Foundation is deliberately framed as an interdisciplinary research effort, and more of the work that we support brings together faculty from different fields, different disciplines, and different institutions.
Kristin Hayes: I might take this moment to put in a plug for another convening that you're putting together with RFF this fall, which is designed to build some of those bridges across disciplines, but also with the policy community, as well.
You mentioned impact, which, of course, is an important part of how we think about our work here at RFF; I'm sure all your grantees do. This kind of bridging research and decisionmaking is the focus of the convening. I don't know if there's anything you wanted to mention about that conference, too, but we're certainly excited to be putting that together with you.
Evan Michelson: We're thrilled to be partnering with all of you at RFF to put together the Energy Insights 2022 Conference that's going to do exactly what you said, which is to bring researchers, a number of whom are Sloan grantees and some of whom are not, together with folks from the private sector and decisionmakers to understand how that process of bringing research to decisionmaking happens, how it can be done better, and gaps that need to be filled.
This builds on a similar conference we organized with RFF a number of years ago that was well received and quite informative to understand how the research-to-decisionmaking process plays out. I'm excited about it. It's going to be a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.
Kristin Hayes: Let's talk a little bit more about the challenges and opportunities before you. The challenge is that you can't fund all the good ideas that come your way, but I imagine there are other challenges you face as a grant maker. You've also been in this field for a number of years. It's evolved, and we can talk more about how it's evolved. But what do you see as the opportunities as a grantmaker focused on energy and environmental issues, as well?
Evan Michelson: As you said, the first and foremost challenge we face is that there are a lot of excellent ideas. Given inevitable limitations in funding, we can't consider and fund all of them. That's a difficult position to be in, but it's one that's true.
But so many opportunities lie ahead, right? We've just completed and are in the process of making grants around a number of open calls for research that really tries to advance state-of-the-art thinking in some of these areas that are underexplored.
We just made a series of grants around research to advance energy equity that are being undertaken by scholars from across the country, working in nearly 20 different states and regions to try to put substantive community-based and community-informed understanding behind a lot of the research activities and policies that are being developed to advance that critical area of energy equity. We just held an open call for energy system electrification, which is research that will explore both the challenges and opportunities related to electrifying and decarbonizing the energy system. Opportunities are ahead.
The future is going to be around bringing to bear scholars from different fields to answer these complicated problems and challenges. For instance, we have a number of grants on energy system modeling that are being informed not just by technical understanding of how the energy system is changing, but also through qualitative social science methods to bring in much more of a lived experience to inform the development of these models. We have research projects that are looking at both the technical and human dimensions of the impacts of climate change on how the energy system is changing.
There's a lot of information that can be gleaned from technical reports and data collection, but you also have to go out there into the community and talk to people to understand how, say, more severe storms are impacting their use of electricity and other forms of energy. One of the things I would love to see more of going forward is, one, more foundations putting more money into research. We're honored to partner with a number of foundations where the opportunities align to advance research and scholarship. But I would love it, over the course of the next few years or the next decade or so, if there were other philanthropic efforts that pop up that can compliment ours around supporting research.
I also have found over the years and increasingly going forward is that the individuals who are doing scholarship in this area have an impressive and amazing background and profile. There's a whole new cadre and cohort of early-career faculty that are coming up through the ranks that aren't just trained in one particular discipline. They've got data science skills. They've got policy analysis skills. They've got economic skills. They are interested in bringing the research into the decisionmaking process. That's different than it was a number of decades ago. It's not that it didn't exist, but I just see more impressive young scholars who are getting their PhDs and taking postdoctoral research positions that don't quite fit into existing disciplinary lines.
One of the things we view as important is to help them along in their careers and to help them, in some cases, launch their careers, so that, as they work on these important energy and environment questions over the coming decades, they're bolstered early on and have a strong foundation to work on. One of the most satisfying elements of the role is to see doctoral students that might have been funded on Sloan grants or early-career faculty that have begun to progress through the ranks, gotten tenure-track positions, and moved on to high-profile roles. Our ability to help seed some of the work early on is quite satisfying.
Kristin Hayes: You're giving me a lot of food for thought as to my next question about the evolution of the sector, because you've already highlighted a couple of things that you've seen change. You've been at the Sloan Foundation for eight and a half years, and you've been in the philanthropic sector for close to 15 years in total.
Over that timeframe, it sounds like there have been changes in the ways that researchers are trained and coming up through the academic ranks. There are changes in the ways that both funders and grantees are interacting with communities who are going to be impacted by decisions that are being made. Those are two that jumped out of what I've heard you say so far. Are there other ways that you've seen this world of environment-focused philanthropy evolve in your 15 years in the sector?
Evan Michelson: Especially as of late, there are a number of newer funders that are entering the conversation, which is wonderful to see. As I mentioned earlier on, there has been a dearth of philanthropic funds going to energy and climate change. That may sound surprising, but research shows that it’s true. That is beginning to change and the tide is beginning to turn there, which is quite welcome. Whether funders fund research—which, of course, I would appreciate—or work on other aspects of this important challenge, there are a number of new funders entering the space. People are trying new modes of grantmaking and different ways of considering proposals and moving that work forward.
There's a whole new era of science philanthropy that's emerging, and a lot of that is going to have positive benefits to the work that's being done in energy and the environment. We at the Sloan Foundation are members of something called the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which is a number of existing and new foundations that are dedicated to supporting research in all of its facets. A number of those members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance and other foundations, as well, are showing more commitment to thinking about making progress on energy and environment and climate change issues. That explosion of additional resources is certainly welcome.
It's also important to ensure that those resources are devoted and spent responsibly. One of the interesting things about the way foundations work is that we have a lot of degrees of freedom to operate. To allocate those resources well, foundations have to think long and hard about their mission, their values, and their goals—and their processes have to reflect that. That's a potential trap that some foundations fall into: not thinking hard enough about how they're going to deploy their resources in the most socially responsible way.
A number of these newer foundations, in my experience, are doing a good job and beginning to grapple with the societal responsibility of their grantmaking. The work is going to be all the better for it.
Kristin Hayes: I certainly see that there's a data-driven approach to grantmaking that, for me, feels new. I've worked in the nonprofit sector for longer than I'm going to admit on this podcast, but that's very much something where the funders coming in bring a rigor. Not that the previous funders didn't, but part of the ethos now is making the most of dollars that are spent. Everyone obviously has that same interest in impact, which is what we're all going for.
I wanted to ask you one last question about evolution in the philanthropic sector and this idea of seeking to give money beyond the usual suspects.
This is something that a number of philanthropies have also been discussing: How do we not just give money to kind of the same group of people who have been getting big grants for years? Particularly in this world where there are some large organizations that are doing great work, but have been funded for a number of years. How do funders broaden the pool of folks receiving money and, particularly, on those front lines of energy and environmental issues? I wondered if there's anything you could offer about how the Sloan Foundation is thinking about that or how you're seeking to identify that broader set of stakeholders.
Evan Michelson: The way that foundations can do that well is embedding that perspective in the kinds of grants that they look to support and to fund. For example, for us, we have a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Every proposal that we consider has to have a plan that outlines activities that the proposer is going to take on that front. We positively select on projects that really have a strong commitment to those areas. We explicitly focus on advancing work that is interdisciplinary, that is often hard for researchers to get government funding for because it crosses so many disciplinary lines. We explicitly try to focus on advancing work done by early-career faculty to try to broaden the pool of individuals who are supported.
We look for scholars that are trying to do work that is timely and catalytic and gap-filling, not just advancing their own independent line of research. We also look for partnerships with other foundations. We have partnered with a number of other funders and the Heising-Simons Foundation, The Mitchell Foundation, and others, which helps to engage with a wider range of researchers. In the field of science philanthropy more broadly, there are a number of ongoing efforts to rethink how foundations do grants. Some are unexpected—for instance, thinking about potentially randomizing grant awards—and others are about how you restructure the ways the foundations are themselves organized to think about this.
Wherever foundations fall along that spectrum of rethinking how they do work, they're all committed to trying to make the world a better place. The challenge there is always ensuring that you are providing the right resources to the right people to advance work in this area. It's exciting to see the level of experimentation that's going on in this field more broadly—to see how foundations are going to have the greatest impact possible.
Kristin Hayes: It's nice to hear about all those efforts underway.
We're getting close to the end of our time, Evan. I'm going to ask you two closing questions, one of which is, of course, our standard closing question. But before I turn to Top of the Stack, I did want to give you an opportunity to share any advice you would have for the young scholars and practitioners out there who are relatively new to the philanthropic game, and who are seeking funding for their ideas. Any words of wisdom you'd want to share?
Evan Michelson: It's always important to keep trying. We have so many good ideas that come across our desk, and we can only consider a small fraction of them. Especially for early-career researchers and practitioners, keep at it and don’t be discouraged if things don't work out the first time around.That's true for most things, but I think it's especially true for seeking funding from philanthropy.
I would also say that foundations are pretty unique. Each one has its own area of focus and way of operating, which is a little different than government funders. Take the time to really understand the research priorities and the ways of working that each individual foundation works under, because that will increase your chances of success.
Third, work through your networks to find ways of connecting with foundations. Most foundations have smaller staffs, so it can take time to really get to know them. But I would encourage early-career faculty and researchers and practitioners to continue to seek out foundations, because I think they're an important compliment to the funding ecosystem that often is underappreciated.
Kristin Hayes: Hopefully we have lots of early-career scholars listening this time around for that good advice.
Let me pivot and close with our regular feature, Top of the Stack. Evan, what's on the top of your stack in terms of more good content? It can be a book—it could be your own book, I'm going to tout that for you—an article, a podcast, anything that you might want to recommend to our listeners. It can be on this topic or it can be broader.
Evan Michelson: The top of my reading list at the moment is a book called The Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions, which came out at the end of last year and I'm really excited to read. It’s all about rethinking how science is funded in the United States and thinking about the ways in which that basic research feeds into applied research and technological development. There are a lot of good lessons to be learned in that thinking and analysis. It’s something I'm interested in reading and diving into a bit more when I have the time in between reading proposals.
Kristin Hayes: We'll post that recommendation on the website alongside this recording so that our listeners can check it out, too.
Evan Michelson: Excellent.
Kristin Hayes: Evan, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Evan Michelson: Thanks so much, Kristin. Appreciate it.
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