Thursday, April 17, 2014

Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science - Broad 2014

View the article with media at NYT. It is worth reading the text juxtaposed with the chosen imagery.

According to this recent New York Times article (March 15, 2014), a change is taking place in how American science (and especially 'Big Science') is being funded. Although the narrative of the federal maintains that the government plays a leading role in funding innovative research meant "to grow our economy" and compete with other developed countries, more and more funding dollars are being contributed by private donors and patrons. The increase in private money contributed to science is often blamed on a failure of the federal government. As Broad states it: "American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise" (2014).

He continues:
[Philanthropists] 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 article regales readers with several anecdotes of the new science philanthropy. Philanthropic science is described as opposed to traditional (publicly-funded) science. Where public science is centralized, collaborative, structured, and slow, science philanthropy is "personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational" and decentralized. The inspirations for a variety of billionaires' particular passions are explored, as well as their monetary consequences. Workshops are now available to teach researchers and institutions how to appeal to these private donators. The journal Nature has published tips on the same topic.

In many ways, the divide between prioritizing public and private money seems partisan. Democrats stress that private money will never be a substitute for government funding, while Republicans suggest that private funding is one way to decrease the size of the federal government. The government admits that there is very little knowledge, however, of how much money is coming from private donations, as monitoring the new system is costly.

This new system is not without its critics. Opponents point out that private money is not spread evenly across institutions, disciplines, or problems. Instead, the individual interests and goals of wealthy donors takes priority. Although the pockets of philanthropy are deep, resources are not going towards the basic research necessary for effective scientific studies. The majority of private funding is funneled into elite universities and problem-oriented research institutes. Fields and universities that already claim a lot of funding are the recipients of this new flow, according to research by Dr. Fiona E. Murray. The research focuses on a small number of diseases (generally diseases that disproportionately effect white Americans) and sensational or sexy fields (oceans studies, climate change, space travel, big machines, etc). Finally, private donors are able to leap over traditional restrictions on research developed by decades of scientific gatekeeping (peer review) and governmental bureaucracy and priorities.

What is unclear from the article is to what extent this new system of philanthropic donations and private patrons is actually participating in the daily advances of scientific research in the US. As the author states, "public money still accounts for most of America's best research, as well as its remarkable depth and diversity." In fact, we could just as easily call this the "old system" of research. Patrons and private wealth have traditionally played a large role in research of all kinds. It may be worth asking how these new philanthropists are different from the wealthy patrons of other periods. It may be that, with increasing wealth and power in the new economy, the individual passions of patrons are being explored on a scale unseen before. Initiatives like the Giving Pledge do seem to be driving this new system's growth.

The article seems to be implicitly puppeting the opinion of "former skeptic" Martin A. Apple:
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.”
When discussing specific billionaires, the tone is overwhelmingly positive and personal. Portraits of patrons are juxtaposed with impressive machines or vistas. Donors are described in terms of their research interests and credited with the advancement of science. Details on particular scientists, their careers and inspirations, are missing. Here, money is the ultimate cause for innovation and the element most worth discussing.

Discussion Questions:
1. Does this new system exist? Will philanthropic money outpace public funding in the future?
2. How might the "philanthropic landscape" change or affect the research university? Will there be pressure to popularize and, if so, who at the university will most strongly feel that pressure?
3. To what extent should the research university or individual researchers pursue philanthropic money?
4. Will focus on private money "diminish public support for federal science"?
5. How might the new system change graduate studies?

1 comment:

patrice kohl said...

I read this story and I think that it, and your summary, resonate nicely with themes in the story Meredith summarized. With some disciplines winning out more than others in the more privatized landscape.