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How billionaires became the benefactors of science

Posting in Science
Bill Gates' $10 billion public health mission to stamp out tuberculosis, polio, and malaria is more than a well-financed effort against some of the deadliest diseases in the world. The Gates Foundation is also a telling example of who funds major science projects -- and who will decide which projects are worthy of such huge sums of money. The New York Times reports.

Traditionally, the federal government has been the major source of money for American science, funding grants through agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. However, as the Times points out, government funding can be a fickle beast -- one endangered by budget cuts, shifting political tides, and government shutdowns that cut off the flow of cash. Meanwhile, tech titans such as Gates and other billionaires are picking up some of the slack by investing chunks of their personal fortunes in science.

Lawrence Ellison of Oracle, the world's fifth richest man according to Forbes, has invested nearly $500 million through the Ellison Medical Foundation to support stem cell therapy and anti-aging research. Wendy and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, launched the Schmidt Ocean Institute with a $100 million investment. Gordon Moore of Intel has spent $850 million in various scientific fields, including $200 million on the Thirty Meter Telescope, a colossal eye on the sky to be built on a Hawaiian mountaintop.

These billionaires are just the start of the list. That's thanks in part to the Giving Pledge backed by the Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett, which is encouraging billionaires to donate much of their fortunes to charity. Investing in major science initiatives is becoming so common, in fact, that organizations are popping up to teach scientists and laboratories how to appeal to philanthropists. It's as though scientists are the new entrepreneurs, trying to get their pitches in front of eager venture capitalists.

But not everyone is a fan of privatized science. For one thing, this system leaves the decision about what science really matters in the hands those who write the checks. Those investors tend to favor "trendy" fields such as infectious diseases as opposed to, say, physics. And within those fields, biases emerge. The Times reports that diseases affecting primarily people of Northern European descent, such as cystic fibrosis, attract more investment than those affecting mostly people of African descent, such as sickle cell anemia. Billionaire investors are also less likely to take a chance on a lesser-known lab or university. "If I'm a rich person, I’m going to give to a leading institution -- to Harvard or Princeton," Fiona Murray of MIT told the Times.

The flip-side is this: Unlike federal agencies, billionaires don't answer to taxpayers. That means they can gamble on big-idea science that might be too risky for the government. Private dollars made the Human Genome Project happen. President Obama's $100 million Brain Initiative is only possible because of previous neuroscience discoveries financed by hundreds of millions of private dollars from organizations such as the Kavli Foundation.

Which way will win out? Even those like Robert Conn of the Kavli Foundation, an advocate for more private investment in science, says private and public funding must work together. "Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can't say that loud enough."


Image: health systems in Accra, Ghana via Gates Foundation

— By on March 20, 2014, 12:55 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure