Billionaires Privatizing U.S. Scientific Research

Supported in the past by public-sector funds as a source of national power and pride, science research in the United States increasingly is being driven by deep-pocketed philanthropists, the New York Times reports.

Even as research institutes struggle to adjust to federal budget cuts, labs close, and scientists are laid off, science philanthropy is hot, as many wealthy Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress rooted in scientific research, the Times reports. For example, the  BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, a $100 million effort launched by the White House last April to advance brain science and technologies, has from its earliest stages involved scientists from the Allen Institute for Brain Science, established by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen a decade ago, and the Kavli brain institutes at Yale and Columbia universities and the University of California, San Diego, which were created with funds provided by technology and real estate billionaire Fred Kavli.

Other major philanthropists, including former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, hedge fund manager James Simons, and Koch Industries co-owner David H. Koch, along with tech entrepreneurs Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Ellison, are mounting a private war on disease — with new protocols designed to eliminate walls between academia and industry and accelerate the translation of basic discoveries into effective treatments.

The resulting calculus of influence and priorities is viewed with a mix of gratitude and trepidation by the scientific community. "For better or worse," said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "the practice of science in the twenty-first century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money."

Indeed, critics have argued that many donors, impatient with the deliberate pace of public science, are ignoring basic research in favor of more popular, feel-good projects. At stake, more than one told the Times, is nothing less than a social contract in which science is supported for its own sake and to benefit the common weal. At the same time, there are signs of a growing awareness among philanthropists of the need to address such criticisms. Last year, for example, a coalition of leading science foundations announced a campaign to double private spending on basic research over a decade to $5 billion a year.

Martin A. Apple, a biochemist who previously headed the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, told the Times that he had been skeptical of the renewed interest in science on the part of philanthropists, but after watching many of them persevere year after year in pursuit of  ambitious goals, he now believes they are on to something. "They target polio and go after it until it's done — no one else can do that," he said, referring to the global drive to eradicate the disease. "In effect, they have the power to lead where the market and the political will are insufficient."

William J. Broad. "Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science." New York Times 03/15/2014.