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The Foundation's Program in Population

1990 Annual Report

Carolyn Makinson
Program Officer

The Foundation's interest in the population field dates from its beginning in 1969, when the Avalon and Old Dominion Foundations, which had a history of grants in the population field, were amalgamated to form The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In the early years from 1969 to 1976, the funds appropriated--at most $800,000 a year--went chiefly to Planned Parenthood and the Population Council. Beginning in 1977, the Foundation's population program expanded (with annual appropriations rising from roughly $4 million in the late 1970s to roughly $7 million in the 1980s) and acquired the distinctive focus, which it retains today, of support for reproductive biology, contraceptive development, and demography.

From the outset, the Foundation's grants in the program have been prompted by concerns about the effects of population growth, and the obstacles which rapid and sustained growth might pose to efforts to achieve decent living standards for people throughout the world. While much has changed since 1977, the focus of the Foundation's program and the rationale for it continue to seem right to us.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the quite astonishing decline in fertility and increase in contraceptive use which have taken place in developing countries over the last 20 years, especially in Asia and Latin America. In the early 1960s, the average woman in a developing country had roughly 6 births during her lifetime. By the early 1980s, the average had declined by 2 births--half the decline needed to reach the level at which each generation would merely replace itself (roughly 2 births per woman).

Figure 1:  Fertility Trends in the Developing World, By Region


Figure 2:  Trends in Contraceptive Prevalence, By Region


Why, then, do many argue that we are losing the battle to control population growth? Figure 3 shows that, despite the marked decline in fertility, the absolute numbers added to the world's population continue to increase, and are expected to do so until the turn of the century. The decreasing number of children borne by the average woman is offset by declining mortality rates and by the youthful age structure of populations which have experienced past growth. The number of women in the childbearing ages will continue to increase well into the next century, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 3:  Average Annual Increase in Numbers Per Decade, 1750-2100


Figure 4:  World Fertility Rates and Women in Childbearing Ages, 1950-2000


As a consequence, the population of the developing world is expected to grow from about 4 billion today to almost 10 billion by the end of the next century (Figure 5). Even this estimate assumes that fertility will continue to decline steadily in developing countries as it has over the past 20 years. Past trends have been dominated by changes in Asia due to the dramatic nature of the declines in fertility which took place in that region (for example, in China) and to sheer weight of numbers (60 percent of the world's population lives in Asia). Future trends will be determined increasingly by the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia where fertility is high and shows little change. To the extent that population growth hampers economic development and exacerbates environmental degradation and the effects of poverty, the prospects are especially worrying for sub-Saharan Africa where the current growth rate means the population will double in size every 25 years.

Figure 5:  World Population Growth, 1750-2000


In addition, several factors are likely to exert upward pressure on growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa if not offset by greater use of contraception--for example, further declines in mortality and sterility, and abandonment of practices which have traditionally lowered fertility, such as extended breast-feeding and postpartum abstinence. Despite high growth, Western Asia and Africa are the regions in which governments are least likely to intervene to lower rates. Only half the countries in North and sub-Saharan Africa have policies to lower fertility, while half the countries of Western Asia have policies to raise or maintain current fertility levels.

At the same time, a number of hopeful signs suggest that further declines in fertility will continue to lower population growth. A recent paper by John Bongaarts of the Population Council, based on data from 39 countries, estimated that 1 in 4 children would not be born if women were able to prevent unwanted births. Moreover, many women in developing countries express a desire to delay the next birth, and longer birth intervals would in themselves decrease growth rates, independent of completed family size. Even in the least promising settings, declines in fertility have begun. For example, recent surveys in sub-Saharan Africa show convincingly that contraceptive use has lowered fertility from previous levels in Botswana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. And Bangladesh has joined the ranks of countries achieving moderate use of contraception and sustained declines in fertility, despite very low levels of socio-economic development.

International collaboration in the field has been aided by the growing consensus on the part of governments throughout the world that slowing population growth would benefit developing countries in their attempts to raise the living standards of their people. Consensus on this point is balanced by recognition of the many factors other than population growth which affect economic development and the environment, and of the need to understand more fully the ways in which these factors interrelate. Moreover, there are marked differences among countries in the degree to which population growth is a pressing problem, in the determinants of high fertility, and in the consequences of population growth. We hope that our program, while retaining its traditional emphasis on the need to limit population growth and its traditional focus on fertility, will contribute to a greater understanding of the multiplicity of causes and consequences of population density, growth, and distribution.

To those who might argue that fears of overpopulation are exaggerated, we would reply that the goals of our program are in themselves worthwhile and important--namely, increasing understanding of human reproductive biology and societal population dynamics; developing improved methods of birth control, and ways of providing them which are adapted to the needs of those who use them; and enabling couples to choose the number and spacing of their children and to avoid the hazards to mothers and children of high-risk or closely spaced births.


The Foundation's 1985 Annual Report contains a detailed description of activities supported in the population program from 1977 onwards. Appropriations in the past program, which was reviewed and redirected in 1989-1990, totaled $74 million between 1977 and 1988 and were distributed as follows:

Funds Expended in the Past Program

Reproductive biology:
Young-investigator program
Research-project grants


Applied research in contraceptive development


Young-investigator program in demography


Technical assistance and applied research related to family-planning programs in developing countries




TOTAL ($74 million)



  • The young-investigator program in reproductive biology provided support--largely at university centers--to carry exceptionally promising young investigators through their early postdoctoral years to the point at which they could secure their own research funds. (The Foundation does not make grants to individuals. Grants are made to institutions only, and they are responsible for all decisions as to which individuals should receive support.)

  • The research-project grants were made in a peer-reviewed program, originally administered by a consortium of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations, and were limited to specified areas of reproductive biology considered particularly promising for the development of new contraceptives.

  • Grants were made for applied research in contraceptive development, chiefly to the Population Council's International Committee for Contraception Research.

  • Support was provided for young investigators at university-based demographic centers.

  • Technical assistance and applied research related to programs in family-planning in developing countries received limited support. Grantees tended to use the Foundation's support for activities which could not be undertaken with funds from other sources--for example, studies on abortion or adolescent pregnancy, or programs in countries such as Vietnam.

  • The remaining grants served a variety of purposes, including service delivery, policy research, and dissemination of findings. Planned Parenthood--in its domestic and international forms--has long been a recipient of Foundation support. The Foundation has also made awards to organizations (such as the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the Population Reference Bureau, and the Population Resource Center) that see their mission as the translation of academic findings into a form which--while retaining thoroughness and accuracy--is oriented toward the needs of policymakers and non-academics in the population field.

Even the briefest review of the Foundation's past activities would be incomplete without special mention of the Population Council. From 1977 through 1988, the Council received awards totaling $17.7 million--almost one quarter of overall appropriations--for the full range of activities listed above: reproductive biology, contraceptive development, policy-oriented social-science research, international program development, and fellowship programs in reproductive biology and social science.


(a) Increased Support of applied Research in Contraceptive Development

Much could be gained by the development of new contraceptive methods which were more effective, cheaper and simpler to manufacture and deliver than current methods, and had fewer side effects or inconveniences associated with their use. Quite apart from their potential contribution to lowering population growth, long-term benefits would be derived by future generations in terms of health and ease and acceptability of use. New methods could also bring about great financial savings if they were truly cheap to manufacture and distribute. A desire to promote the development of such new methods had led to the Foundation's original involvement in both reproductive biology and applied research in contraceptive development.

In 1989, the Foundation reviewed its program of support for young investigators in reproductive biology. Reviewers were drawn equally from basic reproductive science and from contraceptive development to ensure that centers' past records and proposals for the future program could be evaluated from the dual perspectives of excellence in basic science and relevance to contraception. The review confirmed the success of the program in terms of its original goal of ensuring a steady stream of talented scientists in the field. (An external review carried out by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1986 had earlier noted the outstanding productivity of the investigators in terms of peer-reviewed publications and competitive grants.)

Despite the excellent academic record of the investigators supported, very few were engaged in areas of research judged likely to produce new contraceptive leads, although encouraging such research had been the original objective of the program. The Foundation decided, therefore, to reduce the size of the program and to transfer some funds to more support for applied research in contraceptive development.

In addition, the Foundation was concerned at the apparent lack of progress in contraceptive development, due largely to the withdrawal of commercial organizations from the field. Many promising leads remained unexploited or were taking much longer than necessary to reach the marketplace as new contraceptives. To address this concern, the Foundation provided support to the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine to undertake a study of the problem. The report, which was released in February 1990 and has received considerable attention in the media and from policymakers, noted the urgent need for new methods. It also stressed the obstacles to contraceptive development--namely, inadequate public funds for research and training, and a regulatory, legal, and political climate in the U.S. which discourages commercial organizations from investing in the field.

The Foundation's limited means will do little to raise to an adequate level the overall funds available for contraceptive development. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the flexible funds we provide can have an impact on the effectiveness of the few nonprofit organizations in the U.S. engaged in this field. Although the large-scale funds needed for the final stages of product development are available from government sources, flexible funds are critical for other purposes: to develop highly promising leads that are too early in the development process to attract specific funding; to respond rapidly to unforeseen developments (as in the swift reformulation of NORPLANTÆ --2 when a key component was withdrawn from the market); to make funding available to projects that advance more rapidly than anticipated at the time of a grant proposal; and for research activities which are not supported by government funds (for example, the hCG vaccine, and antiprogestins like RU-486).

In considering how to cut back our support for reproductive biology, the many people with whom we spoke in academe and in government agencies convinced us that funds were needed even more for training than for research--a view since confirmed by a report of the Institute of Medicine. It therefore seemed wise to discontinue the Foundation's peer-reviewed program of research grants and to restrict our limited funds to the young-investigator program. Ten centers have received support in the new, smaller program; the awards are listed in the back of this report. The relevance of each center's basic research to the long-term development of new contraceptive leads was considered in evaluating the proposals.

(b) More Emphasis on Advancing the Understanding of Human Behavior

Despite the potential contribution of new contraceptive methods, there is much evidence that technology is neither an overriding barrier nor a sufficient antecedent to fertility decline. (Note the low fertility levels achieved in Europe prior to the development of modern contraceptive methods, and the wide variation in fertility among developing countries today.) Socio-economic, political, and cultural factors play an equally important role, and research on these determinants of fertility will receive greater emphasis in the Foundation's future program.

We share the view of many demographers that, in order to have the greatest impact on policy, the field must go beyond the measurement of demographic parameters and give greater attention to the reasons for particular patterns of behavior and how and why these patterns are changing. Research which purports to be explanatory rather than descriptive frequently "explains" one demographic parameter (for example, the fertility rate) by other demographic parameters (for example, the age structure of the population, contraceptive prevalence, and age at marriage). In seeking to go beyond studies based on a restricted (and easily quantified) set of variables, some have argued that the field must become more open to the insights of a range of social-science disciplines, and to qualitative research methods. Research could also be deepened by increasing the experience in developing countries of investigators from the industrialized world, and ensuring the full participation in international research of investigators from developing countries.

Grants have been made to ten U.S. demographic centers with these purposes in mind. Activities to be supported include: cross-disciplinary training for graduate students in demography, anthropology, or area studies; support for dissertation fieldwork in developing countries; postdoctoral fellowships which could include substantial time overseas; and seed money for projects that are relevant to the Foundation's program goals and involve collaboration with scholars from developing countries.

Other awards made recently in the Foundation's demographic program have had complementary purposes--for example, support for research on the population dynamics of sub-Saharan Africa, to be carried out jointly by U.S., European, and African scholars under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences; and continued support for the Population Council's social-science fellowship program, which provides funds for developing-country scholars to study or carry out research in the U. S., and for U.S. scholars to work overseas.


In reviewing the Foundation's past program and deciding on new directions for the future, we considered several factors: the needs of the population field, as we perceived them; the activities supported by the Federal Government, international donors, and other foundations; the characteristics, strengths, and constraints of our own foundation and its particular ways of operating; and aspects of our past programs which had been particularly successful and on which we wished to build. One could argue that a clean slate would permit a more radical and critical reassessment. But there is also value in keeping one foot in familiar terrain and building on previous experience when considering what contribution a particular organization can best make to a complex and multi-faceted field.

Family-planning service delivery, applied research, and dissemination of information are the most direct ways to tackle the problem of population growth. For this reason, they are the programs most generously supported by the Federal Government and international donors. While we believe that the level of funds available for such programs is inadequate, our own resources would make little difference if they were simply added to the pot. Developing an innovative and effective approach to service delivery overlooked by others would certainly be a valuable contribution which a single donor could make; but we are not convinced that we are best placed to find such a needle in a haystack.

Support for universities and for university-based research is the Mellon Foundation's traditional terrain, and we believe that foundations can play a special role in fostering university-based activities that lie somewhere between applied research, which university investigators sometimes believe to be incompatible with their mission, and basic research, which often gives little weight to pressing problems in the real world. Moreover, traditional peer-reviewed research support, especially in times of financial stringency, is unlikely to foster the broad and flexible approach to research and training most needed if policy issues are to be addressed. When competition for resources is keen, investigators and reviewers alike are prone to be most interested in standard approaches, accepted methodologies, and technical problems that are likely to prove solvable; and they may well neglect innovative approaches, interdisciplinary research which does not conform to strict disciplinary models, and activities which are seen as tangential to the immediate research goals. Structured foundation support may therefore advance particular goals by channeling funds selectively to fill gaps in knowledge, and by attempting to alter existing incentive structures if these appear to be hampering progress in the field.

Population specialists have mentioned many examples of activities or approaches which would be regarded by some in academe as sufficiently unconventional, or inappropriate to academic research, or so marginally relevant to the goals of the enterprise as to pose risks to a successful academic career. Examples which are especially pertinent to our own goals are: anthropological approaches to demographic research; investment in language skills, time abroad, and regional studies on the part of scholars who will seek tenure within a social-science discipline; and devoting time to the publication of journal articles which have a stronger focus on questions of policy than on methodology and empirical results.

Bridging the gaps between the academic, service-delivery, and policy communities is also crucial if academic research is to help solve problems, and if policymakers and professionals are to benefit from research findings. Two recent Foundation grants have included, on an experimental basis, funds to enable doctoral students in population studies to take part in service-delivery programs in developing countries. Our intent is to acquaint future scholars with the questions and concerns of the organizations which implement programs in the field. In this, as in other aspects of our program, we welcome advice from others as to how our goals may best be achieved.

Gaps in funding and disincentives to policy-relevant approaches are especially damaging to research which relates to developing countries, where funds for research are few and talented scholars work under severe constraints. A recent report by the Commission on Health Research for Development noted the need for increased collaboration between investigators and institutions in developed and developing countries, and the potential benefits to both sides. Because of their excellent research environments, developed countries can play a crucial role in cutting-edge research which concerns developing countries, and in advanced training and research- support for developing-country scholars. At the same time, the research of industrialized countries stands to be strengthened by greater contact with the developing world. U.S. social scientists, for example, are unlikely to carry out research with great policy relevance if they are unfamiliar with the language, history, and culture of the countries which they study, and uninfluenced by the priorities, insights, and approaches of their colleagues who live and work there.

The Commission's report also noted the small proportion of research expenditures of industrialized countries directed toward problems of the Third World. Greater familiarity with the Third World--especially early in their careers--might well influence more developed-country scholars to focus their efforts on developing-country problems. We have discussed this issue in some detail with the demographic centers in our program. And we believe the same concerns, in modified ways, also apply to reproductive biology.

In promoting collaboration, we hope to strengthen the research capacities of institutions and investigators in both developed and developing countries. We expect to concentrate--as the Foundation has done in the past--on advanced training for investigators of exceptional promise, and on institutional development rather than grants for specific projects. Our chief means of evaluating proposals and monitoring grants will remain success in publishing international peer-reviewed journals. As noted above, peer-reviewed research support can sometimes diminish incentives for innovation. But peer review remains the best available means to ensure research of excellence, and international publication the best available means to ensure its widespread dissemination.

Strengthening the capacity of developing-country institutions to lead research which concerns their regions should, of course, be a long-term goal. We leave this vast endeavor to donors with adequate resources to address the need, and to organizations with field offices in the countries concerned or--at the least--sufficient staff to evaluate and monitor such programs and provide support to the groups involved.

Our more limited objective is to use ties to U.S. institutions to increase the ability of developing-country scholars to contribute to cutting-edge research. Many obstacles compromise the productivity of third-world investigators: inadequate facilities and equipment, limited access to journals and comprehensive libraries, lack of technical-support staff, intellectual isolation, difficulty in producing text of publishable quality in the languages of international journals, absence of control over their own research agenda, and competing demands on their time which render serious attention to research almost impossible. (Such obstacles drive many talented investigators to seek careers in international organizations or in industrialized countries.) These circumstances are unlikely to change in the near future; in the meantime, potential contributions of these investigators are lost to international research.

As we plan ahead, we hope to learn more about the needs of both sides of the partnership between institutions in the U. S. and in developing countries and about the constraints under which each operates. Possible collaborative activities include: joint doctoral-training programs; postdoctoral fellowships for developed- and developing-country investigators, with time spent at both first-world and third-world institutions; mid-career fellowships for senior developing-country scholars to update their skills or take advantage of the resources of U. S. centers at critical stages of a research project; summer training courses at U. S. centers to help senior developing-country investigators keep abreast of advances in techniques of data collection and analysis and in computer hardware and software; and provision for scholars from the two worlds to undertake collaborative research.

Our approach is no substitute for the direct strengthening of developing-country institutions or the fostering of South-to-South collaboration. In fact, the success of our own program will depend in large measure on the parallel efforts of others who regard this as their primary goal. We hope that our initiatives will, in turn, complement theirs.

Ten U.S. Demographic Centers supported by the Foundation are:

  • Berkeley,
  • Brown,
  • Carolina Population Center,
  • Chicago,
  • Michigan (Population Studies Center),
  • Penn State,
  • Princeton,
  • University of Pennsylvania,
  • Texas (Austin), and
  • Washington (Seattle).

Notes and References

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