The following is a conversation between Adam Falk, President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in NYC.


Denver: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is one of the most highly regarded institutions of its kind in the world, as is the Sloan School of Management– that being the business school at MIT. In both cases, the Sloan refers to Alfred P. Sloan, who also founded the foundation that bears his name back in 1934.  And here to tell us about it and all the work that they do is Adam Falk, the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Good evening, Adam, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Adam Falk

Adam: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Denver: Adam, tell us about the mission of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Adam: At the Sloan Foundation, we support science and economics, and that means supporting research in science and economics done by scholars, but also supporting people – the young people who do that work– graduate students and young faculty. We support the diversity of those fields, and we support tools that people use to do that work, as well as the public understanding of that work.

Denver: Before we get into that work at the Foundation, who was Alfred P. Sloan?  And what is he remembered for?

Adam: Alfred P. Sloan built the modern General Motors. If you think of General Motors as that company that heads divisions: Pontiac and Oldsmobile, and Chevrolet.  That kind of corporation was invented by Alfred P. Sloan. He ran General Motors for about 25 years, from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, and made it the dominant company in American business. He had a fortune and decided he was going to use that fortune for the public good.

Denver: And he was the guy who came up with the idea of a new model of car every year.

Adam: A new model of car every year and segmented divisions, so that every division was aimed at a particular part of the consumer landscape, at different price points, different luxury points. So he created constant desire for the products of the company.

Denver: That’s really brilliant because that means he was not competing against himself. There were these ladders… or these gradients… that you would go up, based on your income and your success.

Adam: That’s exactly right. You would always need a new and a different car.

Denver: You have such an interesting portfolio, the things that you’re involved with. I’m going to touch on just a few to give listeners the taste of the breadth and scope of it all. There has been significant grantmaking directed towards environmental issues, but not so much to the indoor environment. But Sloan has made a 10-year commitment to understanding the chemistry of built spaces. That’s so interesting. Share with us what you’re doing here… and what you’re finding out.

Again, if you want to think about why that’s different from outdoor atmosphere chemistry: outdoors, the atmosphere is big, and it’s mostly lots of air flowing around. In here, it’s surfaces. The indoors, it’s all surfaces, and it’s all the chemicals that you and I bring in. So, that’s partly the stuff that comes out of our bodies, but it’s a lot of it the stuff that we slather on our bodies.

So, the kinds of chemical reactions, the kinds of chemicals that are important to the environment in which we’re living are very different indoors, and there is required a whole different set of tools and adaptations of instruments to do that work indoors, and that’s what we’re supporting now. We’ve been doing it for a few years, and we’re going to do it for about a decade, and we’re hoping to build a whole field of indoor chemistry.

Adam: Our Chemistry of the Indoor Environment program actually follows a program in the molecular biology of the indoor environment. So, by starting with that one, it starts with the observation that bugs… the microbiome that’s in this room is actually very different from what you would find out in the wild because we are here because of the different ways… the surfaces that those bugs live on… and if we want to understand our health and the things that are going on here, we have to do a different kind of biology.

So, we built over 10 years a field of indoor microbiology, which is now a flourishing field. So, coming out of that, we decided it was also important to understand the chemistry of what goes on inside rooms, inside houses. Again, if you want to think about why that’s different from outdoor atmosphere chemistry: outdoors, the atmosphere is big, and it’s mostly lots of air flowing around. In here, it’s surfaces. The indoors, it’s all surfaces, and it’s all the chemicals that you and I bring in. So, that’s partly the stuff that comes out of our bodies, but it’s a lot of it the stuff that we slather on our bodies.

So, the kinds of chemical reactions, the kinds of chemicals that are important to the environment in which we’re living, are very different indoors, and there is required a whole different set of tools and adaptations of instruments to do that work indoors, and that’s what we’re supporting now. We’ve been doing it for a few years, and we’re going to do it for about a decade, and we’re hoping to build a whole field of indoor chemistry.

Sloan felt strongly that to support science and economics, that you had to support young people, and they were the future; and you had to support them in ways that gave them flexibility around what they were going to do. For decades now, we’ve given about 100 of these Sloan Research Fellowships in a number of fields to people not long after their PhD, before they get tenure, when they’re still building their research programs.

Denver: Fantastic. What I have always known Sloan the best for is the Sloan Research Fellowship Program. That is your signature science program. You were one yourself, as a matter of fact, and it’s also an on-ramp for many future Nobel Prize winners. Tell us about it, and share some its rich history.

Adam: This goes back all the way to the ‘50s. Sloan felt strongly that to support science and economics, that you had to support young people, and they were the future; and you had to support them in ways that gave them flexibility around what they were going to do. For decades now, we’ve given about 100 of these Sloan Research Fellowships in a number of fields to people not long after their PhD, before they get tenure, when they’re still building their research programs. We had almost 50 of our former Sloan research fellows win Nobel Prizes. This year, one of the economics Nobel Prizes went to a former Sloan research fellow, and one of the prizes in physics went to one, and she was actually only the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics. It was absolutely terrific!

Denver: What did she win it for?

Adam: She won it, along with her advisor, for inventing ways of making very fast laser pulses, which turned out to be really important if you’re interested in studying the dynamics of things that are happening really fast. So, it was an incredibly important tool. She did it about 30 years ago. As a former Sloan research fellow, I can tell you that a little bit of money – now that Prize is about $70,000 – that can make an enormous difference early in somebody’s career as they’re trying to build their career and get tenure. The foundation has had a wonderful record of supporting the right people.

But I think our greatest contribution was to be there at the beginning when nobody was supporting it. I think that’s one of the things you can do as a foundation… is you have a flexibility to make a bet on something that seems like a really great idea.

Denver: Along with the prestige of winning it. It’s going to help your career as well.

Another major area of focus of the foundation is economics, and to this day, the foundation remains the largest single private funder of economic research, and I guess that’s kind of built into your DNA, having been found in 1934 around the Depression; that was central in everybody’s mind. A lot of this work is on behavioral economics and choice architecture and decision-making by individuals and households. Tell us a little bit about that work.

Adam: The foundation’s been supporting behavioral economics since the late ‘80s – really since the birth of the field. It’s an example of what we like to do, the thing that we like to do the most, which is to come into a new field, in which techniques from one field may be entering another. In this case, techniques taken from psychology entering economics, where maybe people aren’t supported yet because nobody quite knows what to make of that field.  But we get in there early and support people.

Behavioral economics is now an enormous field. It’s very popular. A lot of people working on it. We still support it. But I think our greatest contribution was to be there at the beginning when nobody was supporting it. I think that’s one of the things you can do as a foundation… is you have a flexibility to make a bet on something that seems like a really great idea. I think the most impactful thing we’ve done in behavioral economics was when the Obama White House set up a unit to think about behavioral nudges to help people make good choices around federal programs. That was a Sloan-supported fellow who went into the Obama White House to set up that office, and they did a lot of really, really great work. It really has made people’s lives better.

…another thing we support in economics is what we call administrative data research centers, and that sounds like a really boring, long word, but what it really means is:  all sorts of data that is collected by companies or by government that is public data, but not organized in a way that people can make good research use of it.

So, we’re funding centers which collect these data – this is again public data, not private data – and organize it, and make it available.

Denver: And it would also seem that the breadth of everything you do gives you wonderful peripheral vision in terms of working on something… and being inspired to work on something in a completely different field, which a lot of single focus foundations don’t have that ability.

Adam: There’s an enormous amount of cross-talk as it were between our programs, and maybe we’ll talk a little bit about the digital technology program at some point. But let me mention something– which is another thing we support in economics– is what we call administrative data research centers, and that sounds like a really boring, long word, but what it really means is:  all sorts of data that is collected by companies or by government that is public data, but not organized in a way that people can make good research use of it.

So, we’re funding centers which collect these data – this is again public data, not private data – and organize it and make it available. That’s an economics project, but it’s also a digital technologies project. So the people who work on digital technologies at the foundation are collaborating in this grantmaking with the people who support economics, and we do a lot of that collaboration across the foundation; and it’s some of the most exciting stuff we do.

similarly with working longer, we’re trying to understand what it’s like for people–What are the needs that people have if they’re going to work longer– well into their 60s?  And also, how can that benefit companies that take that expertise that people have and continue to benefit from it? So, just raising the profile of that, doing research on what’s happening, giving people the tools they need to make good policy, although not advocating for that policy ourselves; that’s our niche there.

Denver: I’m glad you don’t have those silos. I’ll tell you something that isn’t boring to me is your working longer programs for those who need to, or want to, work beyond the conventional retirement age. What are some of the things that I should know, Adam?

Adam: One of the things you should know is one of the best economic choices you can make is to delay your retirement as long as possible. What we’re particularly interested in in that program is the effect on people of working longer. This again came out of an earlier program on workplace flexibility that we supported for more than a decade in trying to help companies and people understand the needs of modern workers and the ways in which giving them more flexibility would make their lives better, but also make workplaces more productive.

So similarly with working longer, we’re trying to understand what it’s like for people– What are the needs that people have if they’re going to work longer– well into their 60s?  And also, how can that benefit companies that take that expertise that people have and continue to benefit from it? So, just raising the profile of that, doing research on what’s happening, giving people the tools they need to make good policy, although not advocating for that policy ourselves: that’s our niche there.

So, when you think of an inventor, you don’t think of Hedy Lamarr. But in fact, she was as a woman at a time when it was hard as a woman to be supported and recognized for the work you do; as a movie star, when nobody expected that of her; she was incredibly important for the technologies we have today. So, we want people to think about that.

I think the best things that we do in our public understanding program are simultaneously teaching people facts about science and technology,  but also broadening their sense of who does science and technology and making them comfortable with the communities of a scientist.

Denver: We have been talking a lot about science, technology, and economics, but you’re also dedicated to the public understanding of those areas. Boy, this is a multifaceted program with film and radio and new media and TV. What have been some of your more successful ventures here?

Adam: Our theory of change, as it were, around public understanding is that: as much as it’s important to support really great documentaries, to help people really understand the importance of science, we have to go far beyond that. I’m a scientist. The weakness that we scientists have is that when we explain something– and if we don’t think it’s been understood– we think the solution would be to explain it some more. A little louder, with more diagrams, and of course, it’s really silly.

Often what people need is to understand science as something that is close to them. It’s done by people that they can relate to, people that they might not have expected to be scientists and that they’re going to trust. Very recently, for example, we’ve supported a documentary about Hedy Lamarr. Hedy Lamarr, you can see that… I think it’s on television. She was a brilliant women, and she was the most beautiful movie star of her day.  But she was an inventor, and she made a significant contribution during the war to technology– something called frequency hopping, which is now essential to all cell phone technology.

So, when you think of an inventor, you don’t think of Hedy Lamarr. But in fact, she was  a woman at a time when it was hard as a woman to be supported and recognized for the work you do; as a movie star, when nobody expected that of her; she was incredibly important for the technologies we have today. So, we want people to think about that.

Hidden Figures is an incredible movie. We supported Margot Shetterly in finishing that book. Again, that book, that’s a story that’s about: How do you get to the moon? What math do you need? What’s the science of getting to the moon? But it’s also a different story about who got us there. So, I think the best things that we do in our public understanding program are simultaneously teaching people facts about science and technology, but also broadening their sense of who does science and technology and making them comfortable with the communities of a scientist.

Denver: At heart, you have to be a storyteller.

Adam: It’s all storytelling.

…a lot of work that scientists do takes a long time to come out in journals, and they would like to distribute it earlier and via preprint servers and online communications. We’ve made grants to help scientists do that well. That leads to, for example, better collaboration, and it leads to better reproducibility of research so people can share and collaborate earlier, but also can share their work at an earlier stage.

So, these are tools that are hard to support outside of the foundation, but there aren’t enough users that the commercial world can really support that. The government funding agencies often don’t want to support that. So it’s a niche for foundations to come in, and there’s a great leverage in making the work of scientists better with just some relatively modest investments in these things.

Denver: Let’s pick up on what you talked about before: digital information technology, and there are so many tremendous opportunities with the internet and computing technology. One of those areas that I thought was interesting was scholarly communications– which you’re really enabling  scientists to work together better and to share research. Tell us a little bit about that.

Adam: This is part of a program where we want to invest in tools that make science better. One of them is investing in ways in which scientists can share information broadly. So some of what we do is invest in software that scientists use to collaborate.  And then one of the things we’re really interested in is investing in other ways that they disseminate what they have discovered. To give you an example of that, a lot of work that scientists do takes a long time to come out in journals, and they would like to distribute it earlier and via preprint servers and online communications. We’ve made grants to help scientists do that well. That leads to, for example, better collaboration, and it leads to better reproducibility of research so people can share and collaborate earlier, but also can share their work at an earlier stage.

So, these are tools that are hard to support outside of the foundation, but there aren’t enough users that the commercial world can really support that. The government funding agencies often don’t want to support that. So it’s a niche for foundations to come in, and there’s a great leverage in making the work of scientists better with just some relatively modest investments in these things.

…we’ve been a supporter of Wikipedia. That is, I think, as  good an example as one can find about a free resource that is supported by foundations and by individual gifts, that has broadened the ability to know about all sorts of things for anyone in the world on their phone. It’s an astonishing fact of the world that you can pick up your phone and through Wikipedia get very good information on almost anything.

And the idea that Wikipedia is schloky and isn’t to be trusted, that’s entirely wrong. It’s one of the most reliable  sources of information that there is because it’s crowdsourced and because everyone’s contributing to it, and doing that in a way that I have to say is civil and is respectful, and where facts matter.

Denver: You’ve also made some investments in the Universal Access to Knowledge. What have some of those been?

Adam: The one that we’re the most excited about is for a long time, early on and for a long time, we’ve been a supporter of Wikipedia. That is, I think, as good an example as one can find about a free resource that is supported by foundations and by individual gifts, that has broadened the ability to know about all sorts of things for anyone in the world on their phone. It’s an astonishing fact of the world that you can pick up your phone and through Wikipedia get  very good information on almost anything.

And the idea that Wikipedia is schlocky and isn’t to be trusted, that’s entirely wrong. It’s one of the most reliable  sources of information that there is because it’s crowdsourced and because everyone’s contributing to it, and doing that in a way that I have to say is civil and is respectful, and where facts matter.

Adam Falk and Denver Frederick inside the studio

Denver: Hard to believe if you had to make a bet 20 years ago, Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica – which one would make it, and which one would die? I think a lot of us would have had that one wrong.

Adam: I think the thing that Wikipedia has going for it is its infinite expandability and updatability. You bought those encyclopedias. We all had those encyclopedias on our shelves when we were kids, and they were frozen in time. They give you a little book. Every year, you buy the update. But at the end of the day, they were really static; and the world is moving just too fast.

…you could do a totally different kind of astronomy; and this is an astronomy where you survey the sky, and you measure everything, but just a little bit about everything instead of a lot about a few things. Millions of galaxies in a single year were measured – the spectra– what the light looked like, and you can do a completely different kind of science with that, and it has transformed the way that people do astronomy.

Denver: One last thing I want to ask you about digital, and this is your longest running science program, and that would be the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. What’s that about?

Adam: This is one that’s a real favorite of mine. We started supporting this collaboration in astronomy back in the ‘90s. Let me tell you a little bit about it. For the longest time, for centuries, what astronomy meant was taking a big piece of glass, a mirror, and a camera and pointing it at the sky, object by object and looking really hard at that galaxy or that nebula or that planet and learning as much about it, and then moving on to the next one. What was realized in the early 1990s was that with the invention of computerized cameras– CCD cameras which are now everywhere, and the ability to store and analyze terabytes of data– you could do a totally different kind of astronomy; and this is an astronomy where you survey the sky, and you measure everything, but just a little bit about everything instead of a lot about a few things. Millions of galaxies in a single year were measured – the spectra– what the light looked like, and you can do a completely different kind of science with that, and it has transformed the way that people do astronomy.

A lot of the cosmology, our understanding of the birth of the early universe and dark energy…. that comes from these kinds of surveys; that’s been running for 20 years. We’ve just renewed it for another five. There’s a telescope – one’s in New Mexico, and one is in Chile. I think it’s very important that I go visit the one in Chile. I should say that it’s also transformed the way people do astronomy. Because this is done in a big collaboration. Astronomers had to learn how to collaborate, and now this is how they do that.

Finally, they released the data to the public. If you go on to SDSS, Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s website, it’s open-source; you can find the data. Four out of every five papers that are written with the data from the Sky Survey are written by people who are not part of that collaboration, but are people who went online and used that data themselves. It’s how we make progress, and I just love that project.

Denver: One last thing I want to ask you about your program, and that is your support of underrepresented minority students in something you call the MPHD Program. Tell us about that.

Adam: I think there’s a question that every institution that wants to make the world better– and certainly the Sloan Foundation is one… and colleges and universities… has to be thoughtful about in this day and age, and that is:  How are we going to participate in increasing the diversity and inclusion of those fields that we care about? I think that is a fundamental question for our society. It’s a fundamental question for every institution that works within our society. At the foundation, we take that very, very seriously, as absolutely core to what we do, and it takes a number of forms.

The first is the one that you mention– our niche there is graduate education. So, we make grants to institutions, long-term grants, that are designed not just to support individual students, but to change culture. To make graduate programs in science more diverse and more inclusive. To think not just about who comes in the door, but how you support people of color and women in fields in which they are underrepresented because the future of science and engineering depends on this.

The second thing that we do is, every single grant – I don’t care what that grant is in – if you get a grant from the Sloan Foundation, you need to be thoughtful about and prove to us that you’re being thoughtful about how that contributes to diversity and inclusion. If you’re holding a conference, we want to know: What does the speaker list look like? Who are you inviting? If you have a postdoctoral program: Who have you had as your post docs?  Who are your graduate students? In our public understanding program, how are you telling the stories of scientists who aren’t just white men? I think by keeping that central focus as a piece of everything we do, we can change the conversation about these issues in science and engineering and mathematics and economics, and we’re deeply committed to that.

Denver: That’s one of the great things foundations can do because they’re in a position to have that kind of leverage, and that’s how we change the field, and that’s how we change our thinking.

You’re a mission-driven organization, and listeners have just heard the breadth and scope of what you do is breathtaking. Is there ever any danger, Adam, of mission drift?  And if there is, what do you do to assure that that doesn’t occur?

Adam: That’s a great question because Alfred P. Sloan isn’t around anymore, and I think he’s left us this extraordinary endowment– which is almost $2 billion and allows us to make grants of $80 million every year. We have to balance two things. We have to balance fidelity to the vision that he had, with the reality that it’s 80 years after he founded the foundation. There’s no magic bullet to that. We have the letters he wrote when he was the president of the foundation. We go back, and we look at them, and when we think about our mission statement, when we think about what we’re doing, we are very aware of Mr. Sloan and what he thought he was doing when he was establishing the foundation.

We broaden it. Let me give you an example of that. He was very interested right at the beginning particularly in economics and the public understanding of economics. His particular interest in economics was a worry that there would be too much government intervention in the economy. He was socially relatively progressive for his time, but economically quite conservative. And he wasn’t at all happy about the ways in which during the Depression… the government had been in the war… The government had become much more involved in the economy. So, what he had in mind was to educate people about the importance of free markets and the problems with socialism.  And in fact, the public understanding of economics program was quite polemical, and they produced comic books that explained free enterprise, but with a particular purpose in mind.

So, we still believe deeply in the public understanding program, but it’s not about that anymore. The reason we think that’s consistent is that in a deeper sense, what he wanted was an educated public. He felt the people had to understand the world around them in a rational, evidence-based way in order to make good decisions. What that sentence may mean now may be different than what it meant in the late ‘40s, but that’s a value that I think keeps us from drifting far from what Alfred P. Sloan would have wanted. I think if he came back– he hangs in a portrait in our lobby, and if that portrait were to come to life and looked around and looked at our grantmaking– I feel really confident that he would say, “I would never have thought we’d be funding any of that.  But Boy! That seems like exactly the right stuff to be funding in 2018.”

…we fund research, and whatever we might think personally and privately about the issues of the day, we do not do policy advocacy. We want to remain a trusted party by everyone in the policy debates, and so we keep our personal policy preferences out of it. We fund research and let it go wherever the facts may take us.

Denver: You didn’t take it literally. You took his intent, and you applied it to the modern day, and that evolution, I must say, sounds a lot like Pew. Pew Charitable Trust had the same thing about the free markets and things. They evolved over time, but have also remained true, I think, to the founder’s vision.

Adam: I think one thing that what we hold to very tightly is a niche that’s setting a very Sloan-y niche, which is: we fund research, and whatever we might think personally and privately about the issues of the day, we do not do policy advocacy. We want to remain a trusted party by everyone in the policy debates, and so we keep our personal policy preferences out of it. We fund research and let it go wherever the facts may take us.

We have a program in energy, in the environment, which is actually one of the very few programs founded by foundations that stays away from advocacy, and it’s not that we don’t think that these environmental and energy issues aren’t important, but it’s because we think that somebody needs to just fund the research, and that everyone can then rely on it as they argue about policy. So, we try to hew very closely to that value in the grantmaking that we do.

Denver: The foundation is dealing at the very highest levels in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, economics, and the US has held a preeminent position in those fields for quite a few decades now… With the advances by other nations around the world: China, India, the others: How do you believe we’re stacking up today?

Adam: I don’t think there’s any question that at this moment, the United States is still the engine of innovation around the world. I think we are in that position because we over the decades have attracted the brightest people from all over the world. It’s like we’ve Hoovered them up out of all the corners of the globe and brought them here and kept them here. If you look at the great companies in this country, many of them were founded by immigrants.

The most important thing we can do to retain our preeminence in leadership around innovation is to continue to support the immigration of bright, young people from the around the world.  And that includes young people who are students, not just people who are already professionals. We need to make this an attractive country to come to. And if we are an attractive country to come to, where people feel welcome to immigrate, the brightest people in the world will come here, and we will continue to lead the world.  And the greatest threat is that we stop doing that. And if we stop doing that, we are not going to be leaders anymore. I’m certain of that.

Denver: Adam, you were the president of Williams College, a marvelous institution for the eight years or so before you took on this position. How has that transition been? I’m sure some of it has been great; some of it’s been difficult. Tell us about it.

Adam: It’s been a wonderful transition, and I loved being the president of Williams. Before that, I was the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. I loved that. I think that this is a different way of using a resource to make change and to make the world better. In many ways I support many of the same people. I support many of the same faculty as the president of the Sloan Foundation that I did when I was the dean at Johns Hopkins. The same researchers, doing many of the same things but from a different place.  

So I’m learning the ways in which foundations can operate differently than deans and presidents; much more flexibility, much more discretion to make decisions, and with that comes more responsibility to be really careful about the decisions one makes. I will tell you that I miss being around students. I’ve been in higher education my entire life, my entire professional life.  And before that as a student, I was in higher education. There’s an energy that students bring in, even at their most complex and even when they’re saying things that make the president unhappy. There’s a wonderful energy. They are the future. One of the things that I love doing is we can still support graduate students as part of the work that we do at Sloan Foundation, but I miss being around those kids.

Denver: I can see you have a few gray hairs from that.

Adam: I was 6’4’’, and had a full head of hair when I started that job.

Denver: Some of the keenest observations about a field can come from those who are not steeped in it. As mentioned, your background is primarily academia– Williams and Johns Hopkins and some other places. Although you are tangentially connected to the foundation world, you were not part of it. Now you are. You’re in this space, albeit for less than a year; what have you noticed? Has anything delighted you? Has anything been cause for concern?

Adam: One of the things that’s the most exciting about this world, and I’ve met colleagues who are in foundations across the country, those institutions both in New York and some of the big foundations here, but also out West; many of the exciting science foundations are out West. One of the things that is the most exciting is… I talk to these colleagues… is the way in which we have a flexibility to respond to needs that we perceive… with more nimbleness than any other institutions that have the resources to help. That’s really exciting. One of the things about academia is that it’s very conservative and it moves slowly, and that’s actually good because those are institutions that last for hundreds of years and with many constituencies.

But when we see a need, we can act on it. That gives us a responsibility and an opportunity. If I think about it, at the foundation, we’ve recently invested in a project with a bunch of other foundations to make Facebook data available for researchers in a really responsible way that respects privacy, but that also helps us understand what’s going on with our democracy. We and a number of foundations pulled   this together, along with the Social Science Research Council, in a period of a couple of months. That never could have happened in any other sector. It’s the ability to do that kind of work, that kind of speed and that kind of flexibility, that I think is really exciting and gives us an enormous opportunity and responsibility.

Denver: I think a lot of people would like to see the foundation sector be a little bit more bold in all that. But they can act really quickly when they put their minds to it.

Adam: I think that’s right, and we can take risks. We do take risks, which means that some of the things that we fund don’t work. You can’t only take the risk on the things that are going to work. We are free to take some risks.

Denver: Describe the corporate culture of Sloan– how things get done, how people interact, what those unwritten rules are, and anything special or notable that you’ve observed since you’ve been there.

Adam: The Sloan Foundation is a wonderful place to work from the inside. It’s one of the reasons that I came there. It’s very academic actually. We have all these programs we talk through, and they’re really led by program directors. We have seven program directors, each of whom makes grants in their programs, shows leadership in those programs, is responsible for them, is deeply imbedded in the communities of scholars and practitioners who they are funding.

And then we as a group share the responsibility for all that grantmaking. Every grant that’s made is talked through by all of the program directors together and me; so it’s a very academic and scholarly environment. Those seven program directors are six PhDs and one Rhodes scholar. They’re interested in ideas; we’re interested in ideas. So the work is very collaborative, very congenial, and it builds that sense of responsibility fo,r as you were mentioning before, that fidelity to the original vision of Alfred P. Sloan. We hold that together, and we really enjoy as much the engagement with each other’s work as with our own.

Denver: Sounds pretty silo-free.

Adam: It’s really silo-free, and that’s what allows some of that cross-pollination across the programs that we talked about.

Denver: Let me close with this, Adam. While remaining true to the traditions of the foundation, do you have a vision for where you would like to take Sloan, initiatives you can promote and champion, that will advance the institution and make it even more relevant than it already is?

Adam: I think that the foundation is constantly evolving in the programs that we’re supporting. As I look for it, I am particularly interested in deepening our commitments around diversity and inclusion, and within the PhD programs, but also within academic cultures.  And we’re doing some exciting grantmaking there.

I’m really interested in our science programs. We tend to support science programs for about a decade, and we have a couple of them that are ending. One of them is molecular biology of the built environment, and we also have an earth science program called the Deep Carbon Observatory. We have an opportunity to do some new program building in science, and I’m really excited about that.

The challenge is to find an area where the scale of resources that we can invest can have a real impact.  And we stay away, for example, from medical research because we are a drop in the bucket. But there are always emerging areas where a Sloan program can pull something forward, can invest maybe in the interstitial areas between two fields where the most exciting work is going on. So, we’re looking to figure out what that’s going to be over the next couple of years, and I’m really excited about that.

Denver: Still slightly orphaned, but very, very ripe.

Adam: That’s exactly right.

Denver: Adam Falk, the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Lots and lots of information on that website. What is the website, and what will visitors find there?

Adam: If you go to www.sloan.org, you’ll find information about all of our programs and links to the grantees themselves if you want to know even more than that. I welcome you to come there.

Denver: And you can sign up for quarterly newsletters too, right?

Adam: You can sign up to hear and get news from the foundation.  Absolutely!

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Adam. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Adam: It’s been great. Thank you so much.

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

Adam Falk and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

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