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Benefits and drawbacks of privatizing science

Recently, The New York Times published an interesting article about the increasingly large role that billionaires are playing in paying for scientific research. What are the benefits and drawbacks of this increased privatization of science?

The current funding climate means it is undoubtedly a rough time for research science. Many stellar applications for federal research grant dollars are not being funded simply because there is such a limited pool of money. According to the article, federal funding for science hit a peak at 2009 but has since "fallen by roughly a quarter, to $30 billion last year, one of the sharpest declines ever." This means that competition for grants—and jobs—is fierce. The article says that 55 percent of surveyed research scientists know a colleague who has lost or will soon lose their job.

With this in mind, many see it as a blessing that some billionaires want to make large donations to fund scientific research. After all, this money should help both the researchers who have their science financed and the public who will hopefully benefit from the resulting discoveries. One may even argue that these donations save federal money for other researchers who are not receiving private funds. An additional potential benefit is that billionaires do not need to have their funding priorities scrutinized by Congress, which means they can pay for projects that federal agencies may consider to be too risky or preliminary.

Even with these positives in mind, the article highlights the possibility that this private money will skew the scientific process. When scientists apply for federal grants, there is an understanding that the applications will be fairly evaluated through peer review of the proposed scientific ideas and techniques. This rigorous peer review is not a requirement in order to receive private research money. Donors can give money to whomever they choose.

This leads some people to fear that only a subset of elite institutions will primarily benefit from large private donations because they are the best known, even when a group at a less presitigious university may be a wiser choice scientificially speaking. Another fear is that certain subfields of science will be propped up by the money while less sexy fields—especially basic science fields—will languish and scramble for money to stay alive.

Often big donors have a personal reason for wanting to fund research about a particular subject—especially if it is a cure for a disease that has affected a family member. This can be a very good thing and move science quickly towards a cure. The article gives the example of cystic fibrosis research which benefited from hefty donations and fundraising efforts from Tom and Ginny Hughes, who have two daughters with the disease. Money raised by a foundation started by the Hughes family was used to unite academic and industry efforts, and resulted in the first drug treatment for the disease. This is obviously a wonderful development, however, as the Times article notes, because billionaires are generally white, they are more likely to fund genetic diseases that disproportionally impact white Americans over other races.

Another fear springing from this increase in privately funded science is that voters may be less likely to support funding federal research in the future. This may be because they are unable to distinguish which research is paid for by donors and which is paid for by federal grants—or because they think that private money is sufficient for making scientific progress. Complicating the issue is the fact that private foundations often put more effort (and money) into public relations than do government agencies.

It is important to note that private foundations have long played a large role in funding American science. Foundations including the American Heart Association and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation grant millions of dollars a year to researchers studying both applied and basic research. Some of these private foundations are almost akin to federal agencies in the way that they evaluate specific proposals. They play an important role in the funding ecosystem by paying for projects that may be too risky for the federal government to fund but are not specific pet projects spurred by individual billionaires.

A great example of this is the work of neurologist Helen Mayberg, who has pioneered the use of deep brain stimulation as a treatment for depression. None of this work was paid for by federal research grants, but it has paved (and paid for) the way for clinical trials that have the potential to help thousands of people.

In truth, the public versus private funding dichotomy is a false one. These two modes of paying for research depend on one another. As this editorial adeptly points out, many of the billionaires giving big donations for scientific research made their money in industries that owe their starts to government investment in science (for more on this idea see previous post, "Publicly funded research spurs private sector success"). Additionally, public money is often needed to fully develop work first started with private funds, such was the case of the Human Genome Project.

The editorial also mentions a great idea by Steven Clarke, who wrote a letter to the Times about the role of billionaires in science. Clarke suggested that these donors use some of their money to produce public service announcements in support of federal funding for scientific research. Stay tuned to see if billionaires take Clarke's idea to heart (and to the media).  

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