In the promotional language of corporate annual reports, the word “challenging” can be a euphemism to smooth over a rough year of declining profits. Not so in reports by philanthropic organizations like ours; at the Dana Foundation in 2007, we set ourselves a series of challenging goals and made genuine progress toward meeting them.
1. Brain Science and Immunology
Our first test was to maintain and accelerate our work in advancing new approaches and supporting productive ideas in the world of brain science. That meant continuing to help lead the way in funding neuroscientists exploring the use of deep brain stimulation; that relatively new technique offers hope to a range of people from those with Parkinson’s disease to those in minimally conscious states to patients afflicted with severe depression that up to now has appeared to be intractable.
In the pages that follow this introductory message, we report on many of our grants. These include research into the cognitive effects that previously had been attributed to heart surgery, led by Dr. Guy McKhann of Johns Hopkins University, Dana’s senior scientific adviser, as well as ways to avert atrial fibrillation. Our “seed money” funding of researchers included study of prevention of epileptic seizures, treatment of memory loss, research into autism, and examination of the immune system’s response to brain cancer as well as many other grants. Encouraging initial results from some of this Dana support have enabled investigators to obtain larger, follow-up grants from other sources.
We are proud that Dr. Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University, our adviser on neuroimmunology—who in recent years guided us into that field, which is of increasing interest to brain scientists—received the Lasker Award in 2007 for his pioneering work.
2. Arts Education
Another challenge that the Dana staff met in the past year was in the seemingly unrelated field of arts education. Fifty years ago, the industrialist and legislator Charles A. Dana began this foundation’s general support of education; in the past 15 years, that interest has continued with a focus on math and science education at the Dana Center at the University of Texas in Austin. In addition, in 2001 we began to develop our interest in an important field too long neglected: the enlistment and training of professional artists in the teaching of the performing arts—music, drama, dance—to students in public schools.
We have been supporting groups training artists to teach these arts in three metropolitan areas where Dana has staff to monitor progress: New York, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia. By 2005, our early modest funding had risen to more than $1 million a year, with our grantees sharing experiences and stimulating wider interest in the field with our publication of their “best practices.” At that point, while continuing to fund programs in those three greater metropolitan areas, our Director of Arts Education, Janet Eilber, and Dana’s Vice President for News and Internet, Barbara Rich, applied our successful initial method of operation to a “rural initiative.” Taking urban and rural together, our direct arts education grants around the nation last year grew to $1.85 million, backed up by our additional program support—not nearly enough to meet the arts-educational need, but providing an effective pattern that other private and public funders can emulate. Example: A California grantee, UCI Center for Learning Through the Arts, building on its Dana-funded expertise, won a competition for a substantial sum from the state that will enable it to train teaching artists next year who will be able to provide arts instruction to thousands of children.
3. Neuroscience–Arts Education Synergy
I mentioned above that our interests in the areas of neuroscience and arts education were “seemingly unrelated.” One might think that a scientist’s study of the brain’s ability to grasp geometric relationships necessary for work in engineering and architecture is far afield from, say, a dancer’s ability to learn a series of steps from observation alone. But what if studies of the performing arts were to demonstrate some impact on the brain’s ability to focus attention and to develop strategies for retrieving memories? Dana’s long-term involvement with both arts education and cognitive neuroscience led us in 2004 to take on another challenge: to seek to discover to what extent learning an art form may affect the brain’s ability to learn academic subjects.
We turned to a man widely known as “the father of cognitive neuroscience”—Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, now of the University of California at Santa Barbara—to assemble a consortium of scientists to dig more deeply into this question than ever before. Teams from seven universities met, organized their fields of research, and devoted three years of coordinated effort to develop fresh evidence about the degree to which a study of the arts may help a student focus attention (an ability central to learning) and possibly have an effect on the brain’s ability to learn in other domains. Educators have long known that arts study encourages many students to stay in school, and that arts appreciation can enrich a person’s life, but they have not been able to show a direct effect on general cognitive ability. Many musicians are good at math, for example, and other such correlations have been observed—but can the new technology enabling scientists to examine the brain at work develop evidence to show that the study and practice of the arts has links to proficiency in other subjects, such as reading?
The seven teams concluded their three-year study at the end of 2007, and members of the consortium reported its findings at a gathering at the Dana Center in Washington, DC, in March 2008. Dr. Gazzaniga’s summary of those findings of linkages—including “tight correlations”—is included in this annual report. Those interested in the complete 120-page document of accounts by the individual teams, with footnotes, will find it posted on our Web site; hard copies are also available free by writing to us.
4. The Good News of Neuroscience
Speaking of the Internet, that was another challenge facing Dana in 2007: How do we make widely available the expertise of the 455 members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and members of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain—including 15 Nobel laureates—to help satisfy the public hunger for reliable, timely, understandable news about the brain?
In 2007, led by Editor in Chief Jane Nevins and Managing Editor Dan Gordon, Dana Press published books, magazines, newsletters, audio recordings, and reprints of media reports in our areas of interest. At Dana centers in Washington, DC, and London, we sponsored conferences that helped advance the field of neuroethics, as well as meetings, forums, and interviews with scientists and educators that explored the latest developments in the treatment of the brain’s disorders and dramatic advances in the study of its circuitry.
At the same time, the year marked the twelfth anniversary of Brain Awareness Week. With Dana efforts led by Dana Vice President Barbara Gill and working closely with the Society for Neuroscience, this cooperative educational enterprise was taken to new heights and scope as more than 2,100 participating groups in 69 countries brought the message of the importance of understanding and supporting brain research to students, scientists, and opinion leaders around the world.
The challenge was to take advantage of all our informative content—publications, educational events, public lectures, and forums—that helped lead to the surge in interest in neuroscience and immunology careers by young researchers and to sustained support by public and private sources. How best to communicate that valuable content online?
As promised, our improved dana.org Website went live in the spring of 2007. Edited by the journalist Nicky Penttila, it is a growing archive of basic information and the latest research on neuroscience, neuroimmunology, and arts education. Often guided by our science consultant, Carolyn Asbury, and other advisers, we not only link to the coverage by others of news about the brain, but we have begun to cover the news made by our own scientific and educational associates. For example, an article titled “Man in Coma Improves Following Brain Stimulation” was based on Dana-supported work of doctors Nicholas Schiff and Joseph Fins. Our regular “In the News” columnists write lucidly (in the opinion of one veteran nonscientific columnist) and stay on top of the news in their fields; their commentary is rotated on the home screen of our Web site.
We address all age groups, from “Brainy Kids Online” to Brain Resources for Seniors. Our “Dana Guide to Brain Health” is an up-to-date compendium of reliable neuroscientific information (and reliability of reporting, avoiding “hype,” will be ever more central to users of the Web). The Dana Guide will be regularly updated by scientists deemed trustworthy by their peers, and includes links for further information to validated sources.
5. The Non-Challenge
One challenge we did not and will not face is fund-raising. That is because Dana does not raise funds. We are a medium-sized grantmaking and operating foundation with an endowment at year-end of $338 million. Financial Vice President Burton Mirsky reports that during the past three years, we have averaged a return on our investments of almost 12 percent and expended an average of almost 8 percent—well above the requirement for private foundations—on direct grants and related program activities. Our priority is to help initiate good works in the present, not to have the foundation grow ever bigger in the future; the stable budget philosophy of our active Board of Directors continues to be to take action to meet the needs of worthy causes now rather than to have the foundation’s assets grow to help someday.
The welcome challenges of 2007 were stimulating. Dana President Edward Rover and I have reason to believe that 2008 will be equally challenging.
William Safire, Chairman