Private money changing science

Last Updated 25 March 2014, 04:49 IST

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.

New-age philanthropyThe 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), 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 politicised, 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,” William H Press, a White House science adviser, said 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  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, since 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 A Apple, a biochemist and former head of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.Initially, Dr Apple said, he, too, saw the donors as superrich dabblers. Now he believes that they are helping accelerate the overall pace of science. What changed his mind, he said, 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,” 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.”

And 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-trillion dollars. There are also signs of a growing awareness, among some philanthropists, that this influence brings a responsibility to address some of the criticisms levelled at them. Last year, a coalition of leading science foundations announced a campaign to double private spending on basic research over a decade — to $5 billion a year — as a counterweight to money rushing into health and other popular fields.

A new templateWhen Ellison, chief executive of the Oracle Corporation, heard a Nobel laureate biologist give a talk at Stanford about artificial intelligence, he was mesmerised. It was the early 1990s, and the idea of applying fast computers to genetic riddles was new. “I had never experienced anything like it,” Ellison recalled.

He invited the scientist, Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University, to visit him at his California estate. The visit went so well that Ellison handed the scientist a key to the house and asked him to think of it as his second home. Dr Lederberg took him up on the offer, and over many dinners in what he would call “the most gorgeous setting in the world” — the men discussed many things, from Ellison’s early interest in molecular biology to the idea that great wealth can do great good.

In 1997, the friendship gave birth to the Ellison Medical Foundation. Hundreds of biologists have benefited from its patronage, and three have won Nobel Prizes. So far, Ellison, listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth-richest man, has donated about half a billion dollars to science. It’s not that Ellison is the biggest or most visible of the philanthropists. (That distinction probably belongs to Bill Gates, who has donated roughly $10 billion for global public health.) But his work is very much a template for the new private science.

In the traditional world of government-sponsored research, at agencies like 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 dollars.

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. “It’s always been a major worry,” said Robert W Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, which has committed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to science and is part of the private effort to increase financing for basic research.

“Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding.”In Cambridge, Mass — home to MIT and Harvard — they include the $100 million Ragon Institute for immunology research, the $150 million Koch Institute for cancer studies, the $165 million Stanley Centre 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.

Over the years, the flood of private money has also inspired something of a reversal. In gene sequencing, in translational medicine, in the Obama administration’s Brain initiative and in other areas, the federal government, instead of setting the agenda, increasingly follows the private lead.

A decade ago, Anousheh Ansari, a Texas engineer who made a fortune in telecommunications, financed a $10 million prize competition for the first private craft that could send three people into space. Her success spawned a boom. Private donors now back dozens of science awards, and the government offers hundreds of its own, motivated, according to a White House study, “by the success of philanthropic and private sector prizes.”

Sometimes, private donors go to the government’s aid. When budget cuts threatened to shut down a giant particle accelerator on Long Island in 2006, Dr Simons, the hedge-fund investor, who lives nearby, raised $13 million to bail it out. As a result, research teams were able to keep exploring subatomic aspects of the blast that brought the universe into existence. If the rich donors are to be believed, their financing of scientific research in the years ahead will expand greatly in size and scope. 

(Published 24 March 2014, 16:54 IST)

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