Since its inception in 1922—8 years before the Randsell Act formally established the National Institutes of Health—the American Academy of Optometry made explicit commitments to advance science and the dissemination of knowledge as part of its core organizational values. Founded in 1924, Optometry and Vision Science is but one enduring manifestation of that promise. In 1947, the Academy underscored their commitment by establishing the American Academy of Optometry Foundation, a philanthropic foundation dedicated to further promoting research and education in vision and eye health.
Private foundations have long been an important thread in the fabric of research funding, often providing essential support for emerging research themes and for promising early-stage investigators. The American Academy of Optometry Foundation currently provides more than $450,000 of total annual funding, with more than $300,000 annually devoted to award programs targeting research and development to optometry faculty and students. Nevertheless, public research funding remains the primary source of research funds to schools and colleges of optometry—approximately $20 million in National Institutes of Health funding to 15 optometry programs in 2017. However, unlike funds from private foundations, these public funds are necessarily subject to greater restrictions and must have direct relevance to broader long-term public policy objectives. The advantage and opportunity for private foundations are to fill gaps not commonly addressed by public funding agencies, such as emerging research areas, high-risk research topics, interdisciplinary research, or small-scale research investments.
The Rockefeller Foundation, founded in 1913, is one of the oldest and largest private foundations supporting scientific research. During its founding, the officers debated the merits of large or small investments; funding famous or unknown scientists; and selecting between well-established leading research institutions or emerging institutions.1 Between 1930 and 1960, the foundation supported a number of prominent figures (Rosalind Franklin, John Randall, Maurice Wilkins, and Lawrence Bragg) responsible for elucidating the structure of DNA and launching the field of molecular biology.2 Private philanthropic research funding from the Rockefeller Foundation played an important role in these discoveries. Interdisciplinary work, which combined the physical science of x-ray crystallography and biological science, did not fit into any existing research paradigm and was not related to any current public health priority. Thus, support from the foundation was an essential element of this research success story.
Two important trends are now influencing vision research in optometric institutions. First, the medical practice model is increasing the number of studies dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment, and underlying mechanisms of ocular and systemic disease. Second, advances in basic biological sciences have created new opportunities for inquiry. Over the past several years, discoveries in single-cell protein expression profiling, gene editing, stem cell therapies, and regenerative medicine will continue to expand the possibilities for future clinical interventions. These advances will also spawn opportunities for transformational interdisciplinary research linking biology, neurology, and vision science in new ways to help address some of our most pressing problems: diabetes, macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, and refractive error. However, there are currently few programs in the United States with the infrastructure or resources capable of supporting investigators to pursue this work. How will we leverage existing resources to apply this new knowledge in cellular and molecular biology to problems in vision science? Philanthropy can be an essential element that helps to build these programs and forge these new research paths.
Michael D. Twa
Editor in Chief
1. Abir-Am PG. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Rise of Molecular Biology. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2002;3:65–70.