WASHINGTON – Last April, President 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 $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 America. In fact, the government initiative grew out of richly financed private research: A decade before, Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, had set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated $500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, had 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.
American 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. Labs 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 science 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 A. 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 American business, people like Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor (and founder of the media company that bears his name), Dr. James Simons (hedge funds) and David H. Koch (oil and chemicals), among hundreds of wealthy donors. Especially prominent, though, are some of the boldest-face names of the tech world, among them Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric E. Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence J. 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 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,” said William H. Press, a White House science adviser, in an interview, “but everybody looks at the sky.”
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.
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 America’s best research, 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.