We are living in a golden age of scientific discovery. In medicine, astrophysics, computer science, life sciences, and many more fields—monumental advances are announced so often that it feels familiar. These breakthroughs are accelerated by technologies that support communication and collaboration around the world, bringing together the brightest minds to solve our deepest questions about how the world works. Science, communication, and collaboration are also key to addressing our most pressing social issues—from feeding a growing global population to weighingthe ethical implications of gene editing.
Our ability to build a healthy, secure, and prosperous future hinges on our ability to innovate and collaborate, strategically and rapidly, and to ensure that the fruits of that innovation have widespread and inclusive benefit.
At the Rita Allen Foundation, we see the power of bringing together unexpected partners to spark new ideas throughout our work. The Foundation functions as a philanthropic lab, promoting breakthrough solutions in science and civic life. Creativity, risk, and learning through experiments and prototypes are central to our work.
Our philanthropic lab draws inspiration from the scientists we support. For more than 40 years, the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program has supported outstanding early-career biomedical scientists as they pioneer discoveries in the fields of cancer, immunology, neuroscience, and pain. The program has supported more than 175 Scholars, including scientists who went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the MacArthur Fellowship, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Andrew Fire, a 1989 Rita Allen Scholar, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Craig Mello for their discovery of RNA interference, a cellular system that silences gene expression. Since then, RNAi has been used to identify gene function, develop disease-resistant crops and better biofuels, and more recently to prevent illness, including a common respiratory disease.
Other Rita Allen Scholars have made essential progress to understand and confront antibiotic resistance, launch the CRISPR gene editing revolution, harness the immune system to fight cancer, and find new pathways to prevent chronic pain.
The advances of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars show the innovations that emerge from supporting talented people with big ideas. With lessons from supporting basic science, we expanded to pull together and support innovative problemsolving teams working to strengthen informed engagement in science and civil society. We are building civic teams with members drawn from science, journalism, social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and more.
For example, our grant partner First Draft is a nonprofit coalition combating the growing threat of misinformation worldwide. It brings together newsrooms and academic researchers, technology companies and fact-checkers. First Draft has shown that by coming together, competing newsrooms can improve their reporting and increase trust among audiences.
We are also convening diverse leaders across multiple fields to connect science and society in powerful new ways. We are designing a new Civic Science Fellowship as a learning lab for rising stars from fields including journalism, social science, philanthropy, biomedical science, technology, media, and science education as they create a series of prototypes with host organizations working to strengthen connections between science and diverse communities. Our shared goal is to create a culture of civic science—where science is accessible to all as a tool for problem solving and discovery.
The New Jersey spirit of innovation runs deep in the Rita Allen Foundation. Ultimately, curing cancer and chronic pain, defusing misinformation, or ensuring that science is accessible for all requires us to seek new approaches and new coalitions. Addressing complex societal issues in the longterm means bringing together problem-solving teams with diverse experiences and perspectives to test and discover better solutions. Innovation often begins when we gather together at the edge of the known.
Elizabeth Good Christopherson is President and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation. Throughout her career she has served New Jersey’s diverse communities through leadership in public media, the arts, and service on many boards, including the New Jersey Tech Council.