Why This Texas Billionaire Is Giving Big for Biodiversity Science in the Lone Star State

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In an era when climate stressors and human development are driving sudden and sweeping changes to plant and animal life, policymakers and pretty much everyone else will have to adapt. Effective adaptation is going to require the best knowledge and facts that can be gathered — and that takes research out in the field. A recent big donation to the University of Texas at Austin is just the latest recognition from big-donor philanthropy that people will need to know a lot more about the changing natural world to thrive in the coming decades.

With a $50 million gift from the Winn Family Foundation, UT will expand and invest in field stations and ecological research around the state, sharply expanding its capacity for biodiversity research and education. The funds are coming from technology businessman and investor Stephen Winn and his wife Melinda Winn, and their children. The university intends to build on that initial donation with $150 million in support from other philanthropic funders and from UT's own institutional coffers.

In addition to paying for the creation of a new UT field study station, the new funding will support long-term operations for the the university's Texas Field Station Network, as well as related biological and environmental research, educational programs and public outreach. The school says that a primary goal here is to help landowners, farmers, ranchers and policymakers better understand how changes in climate, species and development affect the land, water and other natural resources.

"We definitely have a biodiversity crisis," said David Hillis, director of UT's Biodiversity Center. "In order to respond to that, we need to be able to better understand it, but a lot of the details are not really well known. We need to understand, whether it’s in agriculture or other development in natural areas, how we can react to changes to preserve as much of that biodiversity [as possible]."

“I anticipate the dollar amount will go up over time”

As everywhere, climate change is a key driver of this crisis in Texas, which has in recent years experienced some of the coldest winters and hottest summers in its history. The biodiversity crisis directly affects major Texas industries like agriculture and ranching, but it can also be big trouble for all Texans, harming homes, property and even people. Like much of the world, the state is dealing with onslaughts of invasive plant and animal species, such as non-native grasses that crowd out diverse native grasses. Fire ants have also been a problem, as well as yet another destructive ant species called “crazy ants,” which can severely damage electrical equipment, computers and even cars.

Biologists and ecologists say field stations are a crucial element in understanding ecosystems and how they’re changing, but Texas — despite being the largest state in the lower 48 — has lagged in the establishment of a sufficient network of stations, Hillis said. However, UT seems to be on a mission to build its capacity for environmental and biodiversity research — in fact, the College of Natural Sciences is UT’s largest school. The Winn family gift comes four years after the College of Natural Sciences established its Stengl-Wyer Endowment to support scholarship and teaching about plants and animal life, and their interaction with the natural world; the endowment is built on the nearly $45 million in total donations from the estate of the late Lorraine Stengl. Stengl was a UT alum, as is Winn.

In addition to their financial gift, the Winn family intends to donate about 900 acres of nearby pristine land, which would be shifted into a conservancy so it can remain undeveloped indefinitely. Steve Winn told me it's likely that the family will continue to support biodiversity study at UT beyond these initial commitments. “There's still some types of research that we personally have an interest in and we will fund that independently of this grant, so I anticipate the dollar amount will go up over time,” he said. Such interests include devising ways to stem the onslaught of invasive grasses, other plants and animal species, and to support populations of threatened but vital species of insect pollinators.

"This grant is focused on how we can sustain our environment against all of the threats that humans, and, in some cases, just the environment, are throwing at us," Winn said. "And we hope that the research that is done at this particular location will have impact in many areas."

Low-key funder, long-term commitment

Winn (not to be confused with Steve Wynn, the casino mogul) amassed his wealth as the founder and CEO of tech firm RealPage, which provides technology to help real estate owners and managers manage buildings and properties. The company has an international presence, with offices in North America, Europe and Asia. In 2010, Winn took the company public and later sold it. Currently, Winn runs Dallas-based Mirasol Capital, an investment firm active in real estate, technology and entertainment. He reportedly has a net worth of about $1.7 billion.

The Winn Family Foundation, created about a decade ago, has been active in the family's home state of Texas but has generally kept a low profile. The foundation organizes giving around three pillars of interest: STEM education, protection of the environment in Texas and throughout the U.S., and women's empowerment and equal opportunity. These priorities, Steve Winn said, reflect the interests of the whole family, including his wife Melinda and their daughters. Winn was originally trained as an engineer and received a BS from UT Austin and a graduate degree from Stanford; he has long championed the importance of STEM education. The Winns' daughters, meanwhile, have shaped the family’s support for women's empowerment and for the environment. The family-run foundation currently has no website, and offers grants by invitation only.

Winn said he and his family are committed to these studies for the long term. “The [UT scientists] are setting up places where they can see changes in the molecular biodiversity of the land over time so that we can start to see how the environment is affecting the land,” he said. "These are long-term projects, and they really need a station that's going to be there forever for this to work — they can't put it somewhere and then have it disappear 20 years later. So we're endowing it with enough money to ensure that it will last, ideally, for 100 years."

Inside Philanthropy regularly provides coverage and analysis of philanthropy's responses to climate change, along with the givers involved. For more, start with IP's extensive list of funders involved in climate-related matters. See also our detailed reports, Giving for Conservation, Pollution Mitigation and Agriculture, and Giving for Climate Change and Clean Energy. Field study of biodiversity is an inquiry to learn basic facts about animals and plants, but it can't be studied in isolation from climate change.