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Can billionaires rescue US science from sagging funding?

The New York Times examines philanthropy that enables research.

Nature’s 13 March lead editorial warns that for declining US federal science funding, things will get worse. Federal R&D spending for 2014, adjusted for inflation, is 15.8% lower than in 2010, the editors say. So consider this front-page Sunday headline from the 16 March New York Times: “Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing American science.”

Sometimes a journalist, in need of a story, yokes together three similar incidents and elevates them to trend status. But in this case Times science writer Bill Broad has found material for an article that fills two interior pages. Online, there’s also a summarizing 4.5-minute video.

Much of privately funded science, Broad reports, engages biomedicine. Lawrence Ellison of Oracle Corp, for just one example, founded the Ellison Medical Foundation in 1997. “Hundreds of biologists have benefited from its patronage,” Broad writes, “and three have won Nobel Prizes. So far, Mr. Ellison, listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth-richest man, has donated about half a billion dollars to science.”

But Broad’s examples of billionaires funding science also include these:

* Gordon Moore of Intel donated $200 million for the planned mountaintop Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii. He has spent $850 million on physics, biology, the environment, and astronomy.

* James Simons, from the field of hedge funds, has given $1.1 billion for math and science generally, and raised $13 million to save the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on Long Island.

* Anousheh Ansari, from the field of telecommunications, established a $10 million award for the first private craft that could send three people into space.

* Eric and Wendy Schmidt, from Google, have given more than $100 million to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which provides a research ship for scientists’ use.

* Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook supports health, physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

* Thomas Steyer, from the field of hedge funds, supports environmental science and sustainable energy.

“The philanthropists’ projects,” Broad observes, “are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes.” He continues:

George P. Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about $360 million to fields like particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy—including $35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile.

Broad examines the social dynamics of the new philanthropy. He notes that philanthropists often want to give to prestigious universities:

In Cambridge, Mass.—home to MIT and Harvard—[privately funded institutes] include the $100 million Ragon Institute for immunology research, the $150 million Koch Institute for cancer studies, the $165 million Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, the $250 million Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the $350 million McGovern Institute for brain research, the $450 million Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the $700 million Broad Institute for genome research.

He sees the donors as “impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science,” as “willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider,” and as “personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational.” He sees them establishing a “new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.”

Broad quotes Steven Edwards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “For better or worse, the practice of science in the 21st 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.”

He also quotes Martin Apple, a biochemist and former head of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents: “They target polio and go after it until it’s done—no one else can do that. In effect, they have the power to lead where the market and the political will are insufficient.”

The new philanthropists are criticized sometimes, Broad reports, for ignoring basic research in favor of “a jumble of popular, feel-good fields like environmental studies and space exploration.” He cites a 2008 Nature Neuroscience editorial that called for caution “to prevent funding for specific topics from skewing research to the detriment of other fields.” There’s also the issue of diversity in science. Broad writes the following:

Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good. They worry that the philanthropic billions tend to enrich elite universities at the expense of poor ones, while undermining political support for federally sponsored research and its efforts to foster a greater diversity of opportunity—geographic, economic, racial—among the nation’s scientific investigators.

Unintended effects constitute another issue:

The official reticence about private science may reflect, in part, a fear that conservatives will try to use it to further a small-government agenda. Indeed, some of the donors themselves worry that too much focus on private giving could diminish public support for federal science.

And in fact Broad quotes Representative Lamar Smith, a 14-term Republican from Texas who helped found the House Tea Party Caucus and now chairs the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Concerning threats from space, Smith said: “We must better recognize what the private sector can do to aid our efforts to protect the world.”

The shifting balance of science funding is unquantified and not fully understood, Broad says. The examples cited earlier, and his other examples not cited here, involve many hundreds of millions of dollars. And Broad adds that Fiona Murray, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT, “looked at the 50 leading universities in science-research spending, places like Columbia and Stanford, Duke and Harvard, Michigan and Johns Hopkins.” She found that private donors “account for roughly 30 percent of the schools’ research money.” The “new patrons are responsible for one of the most striking trends on these campuses: the rise of privately financed institutes, the new temples of science philanthropy.”

But there’s also this:

[Francis] Collins of the NIH acknowledged that the philanthropists were “terrifically important” for filling gaps and taking advantage of new opportunities. The science, he emphasized, “has never been at a more exciting moment.”
Still, he and other experts are quick to add that the private surge is far too small to replace public financing.
The NIH budget alone runs to about $30 billion—half for basic research. At least for now, said Dr. [William] Press, the board chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, private giving is “still a drop in the bucket.”

In any case, science philanthropy has been drawing attention for some time now. Two years ago, the Nature article “Alternative funding: Sponsor my science” carried the subhead “Philanthropists will sometimes give large sums of money to support science—but researchers have to learn how to sell themselves first.” A sidebar offered five bullet points under the heading “How to woo philanthropists.” The same issue contained an editorial and a commentary about philanthropically funded science. Broad’s ending frames the issue in terms of international competitiveness:

Shortly before he died, Mr. Mitchell, the telescope man, spoke of his concern that American science was already losing its competitive edge. He cited the discovery of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle seen as imparting mass to the universe. The finding was made at a particle accelerator in Europe after tight budgets shut down a rival machine near Chicago.
“We have no excuse” for losing the lead, Mr. Mitchell said. “We need to fix it.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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Scitation: Can billionaires rescue US science from sagging funding?