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Science and the billionaire philanthropists

For better or worse, the practice of science in the twenty-first 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 to give. 

The White House recently announced a $100 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a collaborative effort between the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the National Science Foundation, and private partners. Neuroscientists are no doubt happy to have an extra $100 million spent in their field, although as a Grand Challenge, the dollar amount is quite a bit shy of the $2.4 billion Manhattan (in 1945 dollars), the $24 billion Apollo Project that took us to the moon, or the $3 billion Human Genome Project.

The press coverage of the Brain Initiative completely missed the most interesting thing about it—that it is essentially piggy-backed onto a better funded private initiative with a clearer focus and substantial progress already achieved. One of the private partners in the Brain Initiative is the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which plans to spend $60 million ANNUALLY on brain science. The Brain Initiative arose out of a nanoscience-meets-neuroscience workshop that the Allen Institute helped  to organize.

The Allen Brain Institute owes its existence to Paul Allen, a billionaire philanthropist who was one of the original investors in Microsoft. Allen has committed over $500 million to the Institute. The Institute has research programs that aim to understand neural coding-- how the brain processes information. They have also done a huge amount of work tracking the expression of various genes in different parts of the brain, information that they freely share through a publicly available Allen Brain Atlas.

The Brain Initiative will also involve the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which will chip in an additional $30 million annually. Howard Hughes was one of the original billionaire philanthropists, starting his Institute in 1953. HHMI now has an endowment of $16 billion, and distributed $800 million in research dollars in 2012.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also a huge contributor to medical research. One the world's ten richest men, Bill Gates, has directed a large share of his fortune into his foundation, which also benefited from a $30 billion bequest from fellow billionaire Warren Buffett. The Gates Foundation concentrates generally on health worldwide, particularly vaccine research and diagnostics. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett initiated the Buffett/Gates giving pledge, in which they promised to donate more than 50% of their enormous wealth to charity. They are actively encouraging other billionaires to join them. Signers of the pledge include Paul Allen, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Tesla founder Elon Musk, oilman T. Boone Pickens and many others.

This year Mark Zuckerberg, Google founder Sergey Brin, and tech investor Yuri Milner recently announced the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which will award 5 annual prizes of $3 million each, dwarfing the $1.2 million Nobel Prize. On April 21st of this year, Stephen Shwarzman, founder of Blackstone Group, announced a $100 million to send mostly U.S. students to study in China, a program modeled on the Rhodes scholarship. He is hoping to raise another $200 million from other sources. Billionaires are substantially altering the academic landscape.

The flood of philanthropic dollars bound for scientific research or education is enormously welcome, especially given the strained circumstances of governments around the globe. Europe, in particular, is suffering through austerity budgets that leave little room for publicly funded science and research. Washington's current "sequester" is also doing harm. On the other hand, the shift from governmental support to private support of science has the potential to skew the type of research that gets done toward that preferred by the billionaires who provide the funds. He who pays the piper calls the tune.  For instance, Charles and David Koch, beneficiaries of Koch industries, have given widely to a number of laudable charities, but they have also used some of their wealth to specifically fund research by climate change skeptics. 

The Human Genome Project devolved into a very competitive and bitter race between a public effort and a privately-funded (and for profit) effort led by Craig Venter and Celera Genomics. Ultimately, President Clinton was forced to play peacemaker between the two sides. Little over a decade later, it is hard to imagine the federal government coming up with funds to support such an effort. While the benevolence of the billionaires toward science is gratifying to see, we should not assume that they are necessarily disinterested benefactors.