Conservation and the Environment: A Brief Retrospective

The Foundation's program in Conservation and the Environment closed in 2013.  William Robertson IV, the program's long-serving program officer, published a history of the program in the Foundation's 2013 Annual Report.

By William Robertson IV
June 2014

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Conservation and the Environment program (C&E) evolved from the interests of its predecessor foundations, the Avalon Foundation (established in 1940 by Ailsa Mellon Bruce) and the Old Dominion Foundation (established in 1941 by Paul Mellon).  The Old Dominion Foundation supported "organizations concerned with increasing man's understanding of his natural environment, his relation to it, and the effects of his activities upon it," and the acquisition and preservation of natural areas.  Old Dominion grants included support for the Conservation Foundation from the time of its founding in 1948, as well as support for the National Audubon Society.  Old Dominion grants also helped the National Park Service acquire land to establish Cape Cod National Seashore, add to Cape Lookout National Seashore, and fund studies of US coasts to identify areas that should be preserved.  Early activities of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (AWMF), following the merger in 1969 of the Avalon and Old Dominion Foundations, continued these programs.  Important measures included enabling the National Park Foundation to purchase most of Cumberland Island in order to establish its National Seashore, and contributions to the revolving Land Preservation Fund of the Nature Conservancy.

The predecessor Avalon and Old Dominion Foundations provided support to the Population Council and Planned Parenthood in the belief that the growth of human numbers and demands of modern societies on natural resources constituted the major environmental problem.  Those interests continued after the founding of the AWMF and evolved into a separate Population program.

The early program in conservation expanded with the arrival of John E. Sawyer as vice president of the AWMF in 1974 and then president from 1975 through 1987.  Prior to 1974, Conservation was classified as part of the Foundation's cultural programs.  The formal Conservation and the Environment program, beginning in 1974, supported research in energy, natural resources, and the environment, including oceans; it also sought to strengthen important institutions working in those fields and funded the training of junior scientists, engineers, resource managers, and potential policymakers.  The program was a response to changing circumstances, as most of the key US environmental legislation and regulations had recently been enacted.  The major issues of the day included land preservation, toxic substances, waste disposal, natural resource use, population, and energy.  While there was funding from many sources in all these areas, most seemed directed toward advocacy and support for various policies.

The Foundation's program sought instead to encourage strong objective research aimed at learning something rather than proving a point or bolstering a position.  It was based upon the observation that much scholarship and publication was designed to suggest ways to improve regulation but almost none was directed toward learning how different types of environmental regulation actually worked in practice.  Accordingly the program began to fund research of this kind.  Among the numerous institutions supported in these areas were Resources for the Future, which received project grants and assistance in assuring its independent future, and the Environmental Law Institute, which received substantial support for its publication programs.  Other grantees included the California Institute of Technology, the International Council of Scientific Unions, the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, Island Press, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Audubon Society, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Partners for Livable Places, the World Resources Institute, WorldWatch, and the BioEnergy Council.  Many of the grants to these organizations and institutions aimed to strengthen their core capacities; others funded mutually agreed upon research projects; still others emphasized activities designed to bring business and environmental leaders together.

Awards during the program's early years also provided support to the Yale and Duke schools of forestry and Harvard Forest at important periods in their evolution.  Sustaining grants were made to the Conservation Foundation, and Foundation support helped the Marine Biological Laboratory establish its Ecosystems Center and strengthen its library.  Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution received grants for coastal and policy programs as well as endowments for research projects; assistance to the World Wildlife Fund helped establish the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystem Study in Brazil; an award to the Rails to Trails Conservancy enabled it to survey abandoned rail corridors; and the Nature Conservancy received support for establishing and developing its State Natural Heritage Program, which has evolved, with funding from other sources, into the freestanding NatureServe.

From 1974 through 1989, AWMF also supported activities in public education.  Grantees included maritime and science museums (Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, The Maine Maritime Museum, The Mariner's Museum, Mystic Seaport Museum, Philadelphia Maritime Museum, Old Dartmouth Historical Society, Peabody Museum of Salem, Boston Science Museum, The Exploratorium, Franklin Institute, Lawrence Hall of Science, Museum of Science and Industry, Ontario Science Centre), television outlets (Children's Television Workshop, KQED, WCET, WETA, WGBH), and the Scientists' Institute for Public Information.

During the program's early years the Ecological Society of America reported that most ecologists had degrees in related fields rather than ecology itself.  They had been attracted to science and ecology by a field research experience.  This observation prompted the Foundation to launch several activities to support field research.  Eight colleges and universities with good reputations for producing graduates who pursued professional careers in ecology (Brown University, Connecticut College, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, Oberlin College, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Vermont, Williams College, and Yale University) were provided with modest funding to establish small grants programs for student research.  After a successful three years they were offered similar grants that could be used either as matching endowment or as spendable funds.  Most selected the endowment option, and many of those programs continue today.  Other institutions including the Massachusetts Audubon Society and Center for Environmental Intern Programs received support for making field research experiences available to college students.

Grants also helped the Marine Biological Laboratory establish a semester in science for liberal arts college students.  Similarly, the Organization for Tropical Studies received support for the establishment of undergraduate semester abroad programs in Costa Rica and South Africa, as well as for substantial institution building.  At the University of Vermont, the Foundation funded the establishment and early sustaining support of a very successful and continuing Field Naturalist degree program.  The program also helped the Arnold Arboretum begin the Center for Plant Conservation, which later moved to the Missouri Botanical Garden and continues as an independent institution.

In joint efforts with other Foundation programs, C&E grants helped provide field research experiences for minority students through a number of institutions including Harvard Forest, Institute of Ecosystem Studies, University of Minnesota, University of Washington, Organization for Tropical Studies, and the United Negro College Fund.  Funding also helped the Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Ecological Society of America begin and develop the society's successful and continuing SEEDS program to increase diversity in the discipline.

Direct purchase of land for preservation stopped shortly after the purchase of Cumberland Island in the early 1970s because of limited staff and resources at the Foundation, but resumed in 1981 with support for the Trust for Public Land (TPL).  TPL was selected because it worked to preserve all types of public land from city pocket parks and playgrounds through significant additions to National Parks and protected areas.  TPL received 21 grants through 2005 totaling $23.75 million.

Around 1980, the Foundation started to shift more resources toward support of basic research on how natural ecosystems work.  Understanding ecosystems is fundamental to preserving and managing them.  By the end of the century this was the largest fraction of grants (with C&E accounting for less than ten percent of the Foundation's annual grants) and continued through 2002.  In 2003, a transition began that ushered the C&E program in stages to its closing at the end of 2013.  Grants for both open and junior faculty research were devoted to basic investigations into how natural ecosystems work.  Grants emphasized support for innovative research and the training of promising doctoral and postdoctoral researchers.  Within the broad field of ecosystems science and training, grants were generally limited to botany and terrestrial ecosystems because of their key importance to overall ecosystems and to what is generally perceived as the environment of places, since other funding sources paid the least attention to these areas.  The emphasis on plant ecosystems ecology (here soils ecology and plant and ecosystem processes were included) and, within it, on field research was a constant.  The Foundation sought what G. Evelyn Hutchinson described in 1943 as "the point of view of the mind that delights in understanding nature rather than in attempting to reform her."  The grants started with the United States and later included Latin America and South Africa in the open grants portion of the program. In addition to terrestrial plant ecology the program included, for shorter periods, coastal physical processes, coastal ecology, and efforts to establish the land use history of ecological research sites.

Good students in ecology and related fields tend to be attracted to active and productive research groups.  The Foundation provided funding to several groups to enable them to involve pre- and postdoctoral students in research projects.  They included Cornell, Princeton, Oregon State, and Stanford Universities, the Universities of Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Carnegie Institution of Washington's departments of Plant Biology and Global Ecology, the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the New York Botanical Garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  As part of the selection process, program staff attended research seminars, research site meetings, and the annual meetings of professional societies to talk with researchers at all levels and listen to their ideas. Experience suggested that researchers tended to explain their ideas in ways that they thought most likely to win support from more traditional sources.  The ideas the Foundation was looking for often were not emphasized or initially mentioned and surfaced only through relatively informal conversation.  In my view, it is almost impossible for committees to fund truly innovative research.  There are simply too many reasonable questions about new approaches and ideas, and someone has to be able to take responsibility for choosing risky grants to recommend to Trustees.

Junior Faculty Research grants were awarded to research groups led by new faculty as they began their first tenure-track positions.  The awards did not replace start-up research funds provided by colleges or universities and were only made after those arrangements were in place.  The idea was to provide intellectual venture capital to promising researchers at the critical and formative stage when they begin their independent research groups and careers so as to allow pursuit of their best ideas (not those most easily funded).  Funds were typically used to support the direct costs of research and postdoctoral or student researchers.  Overhead or indirect costs were not allowed, and, if tuition was included, the institution was expected to share that cost equally with the Foundation.  Initial inquiry was by email and included a brief description of the research idea or ideas and an estimate of costs.  The awards were limited in number.  Successful research projects were those the Foundation found exciting because of their potential both to advance the basic understanding of ecosystems and to lead to a sustained program of research supported by traditional competitive programs.  Negative results were valued. Where particularly promising results ensued and more work was needed to make the research line attractive to traditional funding sources, modest follow-up awards were possible.  In this and all parts of the program the Foundation tried to adhere to Paul Mellon's principle of having grantees expend the least work possible in getting grants so that they could devote more of their time and energy to their good works.

As more research is done at a site by increasing numbers of research groups with different specialties, a body of information accumulates that allows ever more sophisticated questions to be asked.  The program learned this from experience with the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem study, founded by F. Herbert Bormann, Gene Likens, Robert Pierce, and Noye Johnson, where AWMF support helped with annual meetings, projects, infrastructure, and bringing new scientists to the annual cooperators meeting as potential collaborators.  Following this model, help was provided to the Hawaii Ecosystem Study led by Pamela Matson and Peter Vitousek and to the consortium led by Jane Lubchenco, Bruce Menge, and Steven Gaines that became the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO).  Those experiences led to the simple idea that academic researchers have access to a variety of funding sources and need stable field research sites, while protected areas are usually held and managed by government agencies or private not-for-profits with limited or no funds for research.  It seemed that a natural synergy should be possible if both groups could learn to work together:  the sites would offer secure, stable, and attractive environments within which to work with a degree of autonomy, and host annual research meetings to encourage discussion and cooperation among researchers, while the researchers would use funding from other sources to support their projects on a continuing basis.  Attempts to establish joint programs to support this kind of activity with the Nature Conservancy and National Parks Foundation/National Park Service did not succeed. However, a partnership with South African National Parks (SANParks) did.  The Foundation provided support to SANParks to improve research facilities and infrastructure, add staff committed to working with outside researchers, and fund pilot projects.  A related effort provided research grants for specific projects to university researchers, primarily those from the US and South Africa.  Today, SANParks hosts an annual science meeting that is a popular and primary meeting for savanna ecologists worldwide, has established a system-wide program of encouraging academic research, provides research facilities at strategic locations, and hosts about 300 registered research projects in a year.

Research and training grants often served more than one program objective.  From 1977 through 2013, 474 grants totaled $143.6 million.  Of that, research bridges to South Africa accounted for 93 grants for $26.0 million, and of that SANParks received 17 awards totaling $4.7 million.

As the turn of the 21st century approached, with initial advice and support from Peter Crane, Peter Raven, Brian Huntley, and Sebsebe Demissew, the Foundation helped herbaria from around the world organize themselves into a Global Plants Initiative.  Its goal was to digitize and make available on the internet images of plant type specimens (the preserved physical plant material upon which species are determined) along with related reference materials, artwork, and photographs.  The initiative received critical support from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the South African National Biodiversity Institution, the New York Botanical Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  The digital resource is now JSTOR Plants (  It contains about 2.8 million images and associated data:  1.8 million types and historical specimens; 400,000 images of artwork, photographs, and reference materials; and nearly 450,000 articles linked from JSTOR.  New material is currently arriving at about 7,500 items per week.  The voluntary organization of 322 partners from 75 countries continues to work together toward maintaining and improving the resource.  The Plants Initiative was supported from 1999 through 2013 with 516 grants totaling $78.4 million.

Throughout the history of the Conservation and the Environment program, the New York Botanical Garden has been a special case.  Support began with grants from predecessor Avalon and Old Dominion Foundations ($1.05 million), continued as a regular part of the C&E program throughout its time (43 grants totaling $16.4 million), and has begun a new relationship with a recent grant to broaden its role as a center of scholarship in the humanities.

From 1969 through 2013, the Conservation and the Environment program was responsible for over 1,500 grants totaling $385 million.  The organization of a project of this amplitude and duration was necessarily an exercise in collaboration.  As times changed and new needs emerged, the program developed sustained relationships with a number of institutions, almost all of which are mentioned above. Scientists at universities, particularly Cornell, Oregon State, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Stanford, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Yale along with colleagues at the Carnegie Institution of Washington departments of Plant Biology and Global Ecology, Institute of Ecosystem Studies (now known as the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies), Marine Biological Laboratory, Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and World Wildlife Fund provided counsel and candid advice that helped shape the Foundation's programs.  It is easily forgotten and seldom acknowledged that staff members in foundations really do not do the work of their grantmaking programs.  The actual research is done by grantees who deserve full credit for the work they have carried out with financial support from the Foundation.