Wed, Mar 19, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Billionaires with big ideas are privatizing US science

The new science philanthropy is personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational, and the philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes, yet that personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles the skeptics

By William Broad  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Mountain People

In April last year, US President Barack Obama assembled some of the nation’s most august scientific dignitaries in the East Room of the White House. Joking that his grades in physics made him a dubious candidate for “scientist in chief,” he spoke of using technological innovation “to grow our economy” and unveiled “the next great American project” — a US$100 million initiative to probe the mysteries of the human brain.

Along the way, he invoked the government’s leading role in a history of scientific glories, from putting a man on the moon to creating the Internet. The brain initiative, as he described it, would be a continuation of that grand tradition, an ambitious rebuttal to deep cuts in federal financing for scientific research.

“We can’t afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead,” Obama said. “We have to seize them. I don’t want the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or Germany. I want them to happen right here.”

Absent from his narrative, though, was the back story, one that underscores a profound change taking place in the way science is paid for and practiced in the US. In fact, the government initiative grew out of richly financed private research — a decade before, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, had set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated US$500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, then established brain institutes at Yale, Columbia and the University of California. Scientists from those philanthropies, in turn, had helped devise the Obama administration’s plan.

US science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Laboratories are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research.

Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through scientific research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.

“For better or worse,” said Steven Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “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.”

They have mounted a private war on disease, with new protocols that break down walls between academia and industry to turn basic discoveries into effective treatments. They have rekindled traditions of scientific exploration by financing hunts for dinosaur bones and giant sea creatures.

They are even beginning to challenge Washington in the costly game of big science, with innovative ships, undersea craft and giant telescopes — as well as the first private mission to deep space.

The new philanthropists represent the breadth of US business, people such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (founder of the media company that bears his name), James Simons (hedge funds) and David Koch (oil and chemicals), among hundreds of wealthy donors.

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