A profound change has taken place in the way science is paid for and practiced in America. American science, long a source of national pride has become the domain of private citizens, from the wealthiest to average people like you and me. Federal budget stalemates and partisan in-fighting have decimated government funded research programs, making ghost towns out of the nation‚Äôs research laboratories. Scores of scientists have been laid off, projects have been shut down and shelved mid-discovery and many labs have closed entirely. This has led to the burgeoning culture of ‚Äúscience philanthropy‚ÄĚ, a controversial yet effective means to skirt the federal budget disasters and get scientific discovery and innovation underway once again.
Most scientists are uncomfortable at the thought of rattling their cup on the street corner, but the privatization of science is a hot trend being seized by the villains of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, as many of the richest Americans see the opportunity to reinvent themselves as scientific patrons (see examples such as 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), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric E. Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence J. Ellison (Oracle). The flip side of that penny is the rise of ‚Äúcrowdfunding‚ÄĚ for scientific research, in what amounts to a shake down of the desperate scientist‚Äôs family and friend social networks and the hope that one‚Äôs campaign will ‚Äúgo viral‚ÄĚ with a catchy hashtag. Experiment (formerly Microryza), IndieGoGo and Kickstarter are just three of the many crowdfunding platforms available.
Just how did we get here? In the realm of basic biomedical research, nationwide, roughly 16 percent of scientists in 2012 with sustaining National Institutes of Health (NIH) (known as "R01") grants lost them in 2013, according to one analysis. That amounts to 3,500 scientists nationwide trying to find money to keep their labs afloat. Since 2004, the NIH budget has decreased by more than 20 percent.
And this is for research that can be easily explained to Congress: anyone can understand cancer, however not everyone can understand what the spin of a subatomic particle means. Therefore, these branches of scientific research have been systemically gutted in the great budget wars of the last few years.
The long-term importance to our economy of government-supported research cannot be overstated, but yet it is the low man on the totem pole in the current debate over how to reduce the federal deficit.
Illustrating this, a report published this year by the National Research Council, looked at eight computing technologies, from digital communications, databases, computer architectures and artificial intelligence, tracing government-financed research to commercialization. It calculated the portion of revenue at 30 well-known corporations that could be traced back to the seed research backed by government agencies, at nearly $500 billion a year!
The controversy and criticism of the private funding avenue is creating rifts in the scientific community. Whereas public funding for science seeks to level the playing field among the nation‚Äôs scientific investigators - whether geographically, economically, or racially - private money can and often does play favorites. The result is a brave new world of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with ambivalence.
For example, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at recent major philanthropic initiatives suggests that a number of campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict mainly Caucasians ‚ÄĒ such as cystic fibrosis and melanoma, or most recently the Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Association in the ‚ÄúIce Bucket Challenge‚ÄĚ. Crowdfunding campaigns are often won on ‚Äúpersonality and likeability‚ÄĚ two traits that would never be evaluated in a true scientific proposal.
The impact and influence of private funding is likely to be more than just a flash-in the-pan. A recent 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 one-quarter of a trillion dollars. And recent major successes in crowdfunding have demonstrated that significant amounts can be raised in small increments, such as the ‚ÄúSolar Roadways‚ÄĚ campaign, which raised $2.2 million.
No one, either in or out of government, has been comprehensively tracking the magnitude and impact of privately funded science. The new science philanthropy is personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational even, but will it also allow the continued de-funding of federal for science, and what long term effect will that have on our economy?
The author, Dr. Carol Lynn George is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise $5,000 for renewable energy research. If you wish to contribute to her campaign you can do so here