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.
Especially prominent, though, are some of the boldest-face names of the technology world, among them Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence Ellison (Oracle).
This is philanthropy in the age of the new economy — financed with its outsize riches, practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed. The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that the government cannot, or simply will not, consider.
Yet that personal setting of priorities is precisely what troubles some in the science establishment.
Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries — for a jumble of popular, feel-good fields like environmental studies and space exploration.
As the power of philanthropic science has grown, so has the pitch, and the edge, of the debate.
Nature, a family of leading science journals, has published a number of wary editorials, one warning that while “we applaud and fully support the injection of more private money into science,” the financing could also “skew research” toward fields more trendy than central.
“Physics isn’t sexy, but everybody looks at the sky,” William Press, a White House science adviser, said in an interview.
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 scientific investigators in the US.
Historically, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at major initiatives suggests that the philanthropists’ war on disease risks widening that gap, as a number of the campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict white people — like cystic fibrosis, melanoma and ovarian cancer.
Public money still accounts for most of the best research in the US, as well as its remarkable depth and diversity. What is unclear is how far or fast that balance is shifting, because no one, either in or out of government, has been comprehensively tracking the magnitude and impact of private science.
In recognition of its rising profile, though, the National Science Foundation recently announced plans to begin surveying the philanthropic landscape.
There are the skeptics. Then there are the former skeptics, people like Martin Apple, a biochemist and former head of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
Initially, Apple said, he, too, saw the donors as super-rich dabblers. Now he believes that they are helping accelerate the overall pace of science. What changed his mind, he says, was watching them persevere, year after year, in pursuit of highly ambitious goals.
“They target polio and go after it until it’s done — no one else can do that,” Apple 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.”
Their impact seems likely to grow, given continuing federal budget wars and their enormous wealth. Indeed, a New York Times analysis shows that the 40 or so richest science donors who have signed a pledge to give most of their fortunes to charity have assets surpassing a quarter of a trillion US dollars.
There are also signs of a growing awareness, among some philanthropists, that this influence brings a responsibility to address some of the criticisms that have been leveled against them.
Last year, a coalition of leading science foundations announced a campaign to double private spending on basic research over a decade — to US$5 billion a year — as a counterweight to money rushing into health and other popular fields.
“Today, federal funding of basic research is on the decline,” the group said. “The best hope for near-term change lies with American philanthropy.”
In the traditional world of government-sponsored research, at agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, panels of experts pore over grant applications to decide which ones get financed, weighing such factors as intellectual merit and social value. At times, groups of distinguished experts weigh in on how to advance whole fields, recommending, for instance, the construction of large instruments and laboratories costing billions of US dollars.
By contrast, the new science philanthropy is personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational, and the philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes.
George Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about US$360 million to fields such as particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy — including US$35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile.
The cosmos, Mitchell said in an interview before his death last year, “is too big not to have a good map.”
If the rich donors are to be believed, their financing of scientific research in the years ahead will expand greatly in size and scope. A main reason is the Giving Pledge.
In 2010, Gates, along with his wife, Melinda, and the investor Warren Buffett, announced the campaign. So far, roughly a fifth of the US’ nearly 500 billionaires have signed up, pledging to donate the majority of their fortunes to charity.
A New York Times analysis of the pledge letters made public shows that more than 40 percent of the signers plan to finance studies in science, health and the environment. With personal fortunes in excess of US$250 billion, they are promising, at a minimum, to donate more than US$125 billion.
How much is destined for science is unclear, but several laid out objectives that are fairly extraordinary.
“We want to eradicate diabetes in our lifetime,” wrote Harold Hamm, a leading figure in the North Dakota oil rush, and his wife, Sue Ann.
Jon Huntsman, a Utah billionaire whose son Jon Jr unsuccessfully sought the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, said his philanthropy would “make sure cancer is vanquished.”
Admirers of the new patrons — and the patrons themselves — say that, over the decades, the surge in donations will probably result in economic growth that helps the US fend off global challengers. The private gifts, they emphasize, will become especially important if Washington funding continues its downward spiral.
Shortly before he died, Mitchell spoke of his concern that science in the US 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,” Mitchell said. “We need to fix it.”
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