Philanthropy and public funding of science

3 minute read

Lots of people have been talking about this New York Times article about the increasing philanthropic funding of big science projects: “Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science”.

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.
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.

It is a long article with several examples showing how philanthropists are making a huge difference to certain areas of scientific research. One distinctive feature of today’s large donors is that they develop a clear focus for investment – Bill and Melinda Gates fund public health in developing countries and education, Paul Allen has massively underwritten brain science, Eric and Wendy Schmidt fund marine science.

These are largely founders of successful businesses, with a history of hiring smart people to accomplish ambitious goals. Which is pretty much my ideal for funding scientific work: Set clear goals, find smart people with the skills to advance those goals, and let them get the job done.

That is pretty much the opposite of the stereotype of our public funding agencies, where you finally have a chance of getting a grant when you have already done the work and can show your finished charts in the application. Or, to put it another way, scientists apply for grants based on completed work so that they can get the funding to do the next project. With success rates for grants below 10 percent, the grant-writing process has become a hopeless time-sink in which many junior scientists burn their early careers.

Philanthropic funding doesn’t make success less of a lottery, but the rules of the game are different. Very large science initiatives, like the Broad Institute, or the Giant Magellan Telescope use private funding to leverage public funding from a number of sources. For example, Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded researchers are among the most successful at winning and renewing grants from the National Institutes of Health. These are cases where large philanthropic funding helps to determine which scientists and projects “win” federal funding in the current limited-funding environment.

The story has a section titled, “Uncharted billions”, which features a lot of hand-wringing about how federal funders don’t know where private investment is going:

The National Academy of Sciences has repeatedly urged the government to step up its monitoring of the uncharted billions. And recently, Dr. Jankowski said, the National Science Foundation began developing a pilot survey, to be completed in about a year.
If budgets allow, he added, the agency plans to “ultimately fund” a comprehensive survey.

NSF, whose remit is funding basic science, wants to spend money on a survey of universities. Instead of funding basic science. Grrrrrrr…

As regular readers know, I believe that federally-funded scientists often do far too little to give the taxpayers a voice in their research. I think research benefits when the researchers include a genuine interaction with non-scientists as stakeholders. Philanthropic organizations often run on the same principle.

Work in human evolution has often been funded by the generosity of philanthropists. This includes several large donors and a number of philanthropic foundations that are funded by smaller donors. Many of these donors have taken an active role in research themselves, building close relationships with researchers doing groundbreaking work. Crowdfunding is also starting to make an impact in paleoanthropology, and we are working here toward a much greater ability for a true public involvement in field research.

Personally, I think that research in human evolution is a natural fit for people looking to support scientific research. A small investment in exploration can generate large rewards, and government funders have proven less and less likely to make these small investments in exploration.