Sunday, March 16, 2014

Billionaires Bankroll the Lab-Bench

The NY Times (March 15) had an interesting article on the increasing degree to which the ultra-rich have been contributing to the funding of science even as federal support for research has been stagnant. If one accepts the premise (which I don’t) that it is OK for society to allow a few individuals to become so egregiously wealthy that they can give away hundreds of millions, then it is probably a good thing that the money is being used to support science rather than being expended on yachts and fancy homes. However, there are several downsides to this trend.

First of all, when billionaires fund science the inevitable result is extreme elitism. Most of the money goes to the Harvards and Stanfords of the world. However, while there is clearly outstanding science done at these elite institutions there is also great science at mid-level public and private universities. When I think of recent major advances my own field of biomedical research what jumps to mind is RNA interference (from U. Massachusetts and the Carnegie Institution), homologous recombination (to make genetically altered mice)(from U. Wisconsin and U. Utah), and human stem cell technology (U. Wisconsin). All of these incredibly important breakthroughs came from publically funded research at excellent but not ultra-prestigious institutions. While welcoming private contributions to science we need to understand that they can never replace the broad and diverse science funding that comes from federal sources. A scary thought is that some of our ultra-conservative political nitwits are going to use this trend an excuse to attack federal funding of science. Having been around for a while, this reminds me of Reagan’s comments early in his Presidency about wanting to replace the NIH with private funding from drug companies. Considering that the pharmaceutical industry has now almost completely eviscerated its basic research programs we would now be in quite a pickle if Reagan had followed through.

Second, the process by which some investigators have been able to tap into this largess really gives me the creeps. The idea of a 30 second “elevator pitch” to spark a busy donor’s interest with Tweet-like brevity just contradicts the whole concept of evaluating the quality of science on a considered and rational basis.

Third, the sponsored science will inevitably reflect the donor’s interests and perhaps political orientation. Do we really want the Koch brothers funding climate science? At a less extreme level many of the projects mentioned in the Times article barely qualify as science. Private space flights or deep-sea dives are fun ideas and do spark public interest in technology. However, they are trivial in terms of real scientific advances. To be fair private funds have supported many worthwhile developments in science. For example, while it has some critics, the Gates Foundation has revolutionized R&D in the tropical medicine field. The Howard Hughes operation (interestingly not mentioned in the Times article) has supported high quality basic biomedical research for many years. Ultimately, however, the science being done will reflect the interests of the donor and not necessarily the most urgent needs of the field of research. 

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