Can BOGOF Save British Science?

‘Buy One Get One Free’, known in the trade as BOGOF, is one of the supermarkets’ favourite tools to make us spend more money – most of us can’t resist something for nothing, sometimes even if we don’t really want it. So we were excited to learn last week that a similar technique has just scored a big success as part of a major fundraising scheme for the 21st Century School at Oxford University, founded by British-born “Guru of the Information age” Dr James Martin.

In March 2009 Martin put up $50 million of challenge funding to lever other donors to his school. Last week, little more than a year later, the School announced that, with gifts from 30 donors, they had raised the full $50 million match funding. Now, $50 million may sound like small beer to American universities but this is a big leap forward for Britain, where philanthropy is still seen as a marginal part of the way to support research at higher education institutions (leaving aside the Wellcome Trust, which is a lone exception).

This is going to have to change. These are grim times for British universities in general and for scientific research in particular. Indeed so worried are the nation’s boffins that the chill fiscal wind is going to blow through their laboratories that some of them even launched a Science Party, to put the case for science on the political agenda in the upcoming general election. We wish them well but fear that British science is looking for salvation in the wrong place. While the political parties talk a good game about high-tech manufacturing and the knowledge economy, their manifestos contain little cheer for the scientific community.

Like it or not, the future of British science is going to rest with the philanthrocapitalists, which is going to require a culture shift from the universities and from donors large and small. We think that match funding schemes have the potential to catalyse that change. Last year’s  Coutts Million Pound Donor report, written by Beth Breeze at the University of Kent, cited anecdotal evidence that the government’s match funding scheme has started to mobilise donors (launched in 2008, the government put up a £200 million pot to match private donations on a sliding scale, with donations to less experienced universities matched 1:1 whereas the more experienced fundraisers only receive £1 of public money for each £3 raised from private donors).

James Martin’s experiment, which he modestly told us “just seemed like a good idea”, provides further evidence that the BOGOF principle does seem to be working as a way to ‘nudge’ more giving. (As does The Big Give, which is an opportunity that at least one university has already taken up.)

With public budgets under pressure, government funding for science is going to be squeezed not just in absolute terms but also towards projects that fit political priorities and deliver concrete outcomes in three to five years. Since philanthropy is often at its best when it thinks long term and takes risks that government cannot, we believe that there is a huge opportunity for donors to make a big impact by giving to support scientific research. It would also be great to see more innovation in giving to science, perhaps through social venture capital equity investment in technologies that tackle climate change and disease. Hopefully the next British government will use the power of BOGOF to save British science.