When the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) was conceived, there wasn’t anything like it. At the time, astronomical survey research was conducted by exposing and developing photographic plates—a slow and laborious process—and the data, owned by the scientists who gathered it, was difficult for others to access.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey changed all of this, transforming how astronomical research gets done. Designed to create a map of the sky hundreds of times larger than any other map to date, it collected digital astronomical research data from a 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, making the data much easier to catalog, search, and use. The digitization multiplied the amount of data captured and shared with all scientists, thus facilitating new analysis, data and funding.

The Sloan Foundation was intrigued by the digital sky survey’s promise, which aimed to transform astronomy by moving to digital images and engendering a dramatic increase in information about stars and galaxies. Access to this data would facilitate the study of many new and important questions in astronomy that scientists were starting to explore.

While the Sloan Foundation helped ensure that SDSS research plans were strong and that the collaboration was moving in the right direction, it took a mostly hands-off approach to the day-to-day operation of the project. The key to success, it believed, was to ensure the scientific community was at the helm and fully engaged.

Key lessons for philanthropists:

  • Identifying the right scientific questions should come first, driving the type of data collected.
  • It is important to engage the scientific community in identifying the questions for research. Achieving consensus from the scientific community can take time.
  • Open data access policies can facilitate broader use of the data and accelerate discoveries.
    Basic science projects can take longer and be more expensive than expected and can represent a certain amount of risk, but potential returns can be transformative.
  • Expect evolution in the scientific field, including technology obsolescence and new topics for research.
  • Governance—dedicated scientific leaders and an effective management structure—keeps a project on track. The foundation can provide support and ensure strong management and operations. Funders must make explicit the importance of diversity and inclusion considerations.
  • An innovative and collaborative funding model that engages scientific research institutions can ensure project sustainability as well as ensure the project stays market-relevant.

Read the full article about astronomy funding and data from Science Philanthropy Alliance