Civic Science Sparks With … The Science Philanthropy Alliance

March 28, 2022

Science Philanthropy Alliance President France Córdova and Alliance Civic Science Fellow Daren Ginete are working to build the future of scientific discovery, including increasing opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds—recognizing that excellence requires, in France’s words, “embracing and growing all talent.”

An accomplished astrophysicist, France has had many remarkable achievements: serving as Chief Scientist at NASA (the youngest person and first woman to fill that role), where she worked to advance science and its relationship with diverse communities. She also served as Group Leader at Los Alamos National Lab, President of Purdue University, and Director of the National Science Foundation, where she launched the NSF INCLUDES program to ensure scientific research efforts and funding cultivates and represents more and more of the full range of potential discoverers. Earlier this month, she received the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Builders of Science Award from Research!America, recognizing those who have provided inspiration and determination in building an outstanding home for research.

Daren grew up in the Philippines, where he notes that having a PhD was pretty rare, and became a trained microbiologist. He has since created diverse educational programs for science communication and has served as an advisor to the philanthropic community, including supporting Alliance members in building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive research enterprise as a Civic Science Fellow.

Both France and Daren highlight how curiosity and “ah-ha” moments of discovery provide them with deep connection with the natural world and motivation to increase that wonder through connection with others. “I am motivated by curiosity, by an overwhelming fascination with Nature’s beauty and complexity, and by the desire to have an impact,” France says. “These lead me in many directions: curiosity and fascination about Nature leads me to be an investigator, a detective; the desire to make an impact leads me to study how and why things work—and that often makes me want to do things differently to achieve success.”

Rita Allen Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Christopherson reached out to France and Daren to learn more about what drives them, what they’re learning together in the Civic Science Fellows program, and where they’re going next in their work to ensure that we all can better see ourselves in science.

Elizabeth Christopherson, President and CEO, Rita Allen FoundationHow would you describe yourself to the network?

France Córdova: I am hardworking and focused, with a love of science that leads me to going deeper into investigating nature’s mysteries. 

Daren Ginete: I am fortunate and thankful to have realized my inherent passion for scientific discovery. Growing up in the Philippines where having a Ph.D. is rare, being a trained Ph.D. researcher providing science advising never felt like a career option but here I am now living it.  

Elizabeth: You’ve worked across civic and science institutions, leading scientific research and advancing science policy and practice as Chief Scientist at NASA, Group Leader at Los Alamos National Lab, President of Purdue University, Director of the National Science Foundation, and now advancing science philanthropy as President of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. What brought you to your current role at the Science Philanthropy Alliance, and to your support for a Civic Science Fellow? What motivations are threads through your work? 

France: I am motivated by curiosity, by an overwhelming fascination with Nature’s beauty and complexity, and by the desire to have an impact. These lead me in many directions: curiosity and fascination about Nature leads me to be an investigator, a detective; the desire to make an impact leads me to study how and why things work—and that often makes me want to do things differently to achieve success. I have worked in the government, university, and industry sectors, but not in philanthropy, so SPA was attractive to me: I wanted to see how philanthropy complements the other sectors with its investment in high risk, high reward basic science. At SPA we support a Civic Science Fellow because we believe that our alliance holds shared values which make it a better, stronger organization. The values encouraged by civic science—openness, collaboration with others, fearlessness, inclusiveness—are what is needed to (literally) change the face of science. 

Elizabeth: At the Summer 2021 convening of the Civic Science Fellows, you said in a fireside chat “if you’re not embracing talent and growing talent, then you can’t do any of the other big ideas” in science and society. You’ve also just received an Advocacy Award from ResearchAmerica!—the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Builders of Science Award—recognizing how much you’ve provided “inspiration and determination in building an outstanding home for research.” What does an “outstanding home for research” look like for you, and how can it be welcoming to all? 

France: An outstanding home for research is one in which every participant feels encouraged to pursue science, take calculated risks in research, collaborate with others, feel listened to and supported in his/her unique quest for knowledge. 

Elizabeth: What does your project look like? What is the place of equity, inclusion, and diversity in science philanthropy, and what do you think it will take to support advances there?

Daren: I am driven by the desire to foster everyone’s interests in science discovery and the recognition that identity biases and resource discrepancy among individuals and institutions hamper scientific research. With the overarching goal of science philanthropy for research excellence, I see diversity, equity, and inclusion as essential considerations for impactful grantmaking. As my Civic Science Fellow project, I am excited to work with leading and emerging private science funders on advising projects and collaborative efforts to advance science through philanthropy.

Elizabeth: What are you most excited about in your work right now? 

Daren: Like scientific research, science philanthropy continuously pushes the limits of what can be done. While I have stepped away from doing direct lab work, I am happy to be part of a community that understands the importance of resilience and sustainability to nurture innovation and creativity in the work.

Elizabeth: What is something you’ve learned since becoming a Civic Science Fellow? 

Daren: From seminars and conversations with other civic science fellows, I have learned more about community-based approaches. I realized that embedding such practices within the scientific research process can broaden excitement and understanding of science. Through the CSF program, I have also learned new communication strategies, including how to listen, ask questions, and present ideas more effectively. I am looking forward to learning more!

Elizabeth: What is one piece of advance you’d offer to philanthropists about investing in building an inclusive, diverse, thriving STEM ecosystem for the future? 

France: My advice is simple, but challenging: weave diversity and inclusion into one’s organization and into every program one invests in. There are many good models around. Every philanthropist could strive to be a model also, and communicate what success looks like to others.

“The need to advance social justice through embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a priority across the scientific landscape. Under France Córdova’s leadership at the Science Philanthropy Alliance and together with the efforts of Daren Ginete, a Civic Science Fellow, increased attention to DEI in both the organizational function of science philanthropies and their investments has already made a difference. Our sustained commitment towards these efforts will provide benefits and increase potential in DEI initiatives into the future.”

—Louis Muglia, President and CEO of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund

“Now, more than ever, it is important for us to re-examine the assumptions and implications of what our past knowledge and practices have created. Where are we now? Where do we want to be? Because those don’t align yet, we must be vigilant in doing better. We must take the time to learn about and adopt new practices in our own work and our work as a shared community. Daren Ginete is key to expanding the DEI work of the members of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. He’s also responsible for the collective wisdom—advancing, sharing, and implementing new methods to better science beyond our doors and grants. He’s a great thought partner and active practitioner who is singly and collectively making the world of science more open, diverse, and receptive to new ways of thinking, which will lead to new discoveries and theories about how the universe operates.”

—Cyndi Atherton, Director, Science, Heising-Simons Foundation

Science Philanthropy Alliance Civic Science Fellow Daren Ginete is supported by the Rita Allen Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.