ASK: Should American Science be Privatized?

As the power of philanthropic science has grown, so has the pitch, and the edge, of the debate. Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good. 

By William J. Broad - NY Times

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,” Mr. 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.

The 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 politicized, 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 particularly 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 leveled 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.

“Today, federal funding of basic research is on the decline,” the group said. “The best hope for near-term change lies with American philanthropy.”

A New Template

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

He invited the scientist, Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University, to visit him at his California estate. The visit went so well that Mr. 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” — complete with Japanese teahouse, strolling gardens and ponds of ornamental fish — the men discussed many things, from Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

By contrast, the new science philanthropy is personal, antibureaucratic, inspirational.

For Wendy Schmidt, the inspiration came in 2009, from a coral reef in the Grenadine islands of the Caribbean. It was her first scuba dive, and it opened her eyes to the riot of nature.

She talked it over with her husband, Eric, the executive chairman of Google, and the two decided that marine science needed more resources. (The government’s research fleet, 28 ships strong in 2000, has shrunk by about a third and faces further cuts.) So they set up the Schmidt Ocean Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., and poured in more than $100 million. The centerpiece is a ship nearly the length of a football field that, unlike most research vessels, has a sauna and a helicopter pad.

“We want to rapidly advance scientific research, to speed it up,” Mrs. Schmidt said in an interview.

The philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes. George P. Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about $360 million to fields like particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy — including $35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile.

The cosmos, Mr. Mitchell said in an interview before his death last year, “is too big not to have a good map.”

Eli Broad, who earned his money in housing and insurance, donated $700 million for a venture between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore the genetic basis of disease. Gordon Moore of Intel has spent $850 million on research in physics, biology, the environment and astronomy. The investor Ronald O. Perelman, among other donations, gave more than $30 million to study women’s cancers — money that led to Herceptin, a breakthrough drug for certain kinds of breast cancer. Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft, has spent heavily on uncovering fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, has lent his mega-yacht to hunts for the elusive giant squid.

The availability of so much well-financed ambition has created a new kind of dating game. In what is becoming a common narrative, researchers like to describe how they begged the federal science establishment for funds, were brushed aside and turned instead to the welcoming arms of philanthropists. To help scientists bond quickly with potential benefactors, a cottage industry has emerged, offering workshops, personal coaching, role-playing exercises and the production of video appeals.

Advancement Resources of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did its first workshop in 2002 and has now conducted hundreds across the country, mostly to coach scientists and medical institutions in what it calls the art of donor development. “We help make their work accessible to people who do not have scientific backgrounds but do understand money,” said its founder, Joe K. Golding.

Medical institutions are even training their own scientists and doctors in the art of soliciting money from grateful — and wealthy — patients. And Nature ran a lengthy article giving tips on how to “sell science” and “woo philanthropists.” They included practicing an “elevator pitch” — a digest of research so compelling that it would seize a potential donor’s attention in the time between floors.

Practice in front of the mirror and “with anyone who will listen,” it advised. When the pitch is smooth enough, “aim high.”

Government Gloom

In November 2012, the White House issued a thick and portentous update on the health of the nation’s research complex. Produced by Mr. Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, it warned of American declines, emphasized the rise of scientific rivals abroad and called for bold policy interventions.

“Without adequate support for such research,” the experts wrote in their cover letter, “the United States risks losing its leadership in invention and discovery.”

The financial outlook had fallen far and fast. Congress had long reached across party lines to support government research, for its economic and military rewards and because the distribution of billions of dollars plays well come election time. After rising steadily for decades, federal science financing hit a high point in 2009, in the early days of the Obama administration, as Congress, to stimulate the economy amid the global financial crisis, allocated about $40 billion for basic science.

That bipartisan consensus eroded with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections and the budget battles that followed. Spending on basic research has fallen by roughly a quarter, to $30 billion last year, one of the sharpest declines ever.

The cutbacks translate into layoffs: A group of scientific societies recently surveyed 3,700 scientists and technical managers and reported that 55 percent knew of colleagues who had lost jobs or expected to lose them soon. READ MORE

Image: President Obama chats with (from left) Dr. Francis Collins, Dr. Marston Linehan, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at the National Institutes of Health. Photo Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters