Billionaire philanthropists are becoming more involved in science as the nation’s budget cuts are closing labs and laying off scientists. And the fact that what little money is left is goes to bureaucratically dictated research, rather than funding fresh ideas, has some of the wealthy reaching for the reins.
In a survey of over 3,700 scientists by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland, one-third admitted to laying off researchers, and two-thirds had witnessed their funding drop since 2010. That’s the fastest three-year drop since the 1970s
According to Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, 21st century American science is becoming shaped more by the private preferences of individuals with money than national agendas and peer-review groups.
Billionaire philanthropists are now offering funding when it is most needed. But the welcome from scientists comes with mixed feelings, part gratitude and part trepidation. The gratitude, of course, arises from the impending windfall, but that is accompanied by anxious anticipation of the personal motives behind the new funding and if these motives might, in some way, override the precepts to science and fortify the inequalities that already exist in the country.
One example is the tendency to support certain emotionally charged issues such as certain diseases that only affect privileged white people, leaving the remainder of society to continue to fend for themselves. Another example may include funding institutions that resonate with a certain alma mater. Such possibilities spark concerns that billionaire philanthropists might fund science according to their personal agendas rather than for the needs that are the greatest.
Nevertheless, wealthy individuals have contributed greatly to society and many institutions such as specialized private hospitals and art institutions might not have been able to exist without their help.
And billionaire philanthropists do exist whose science passions and investments align with the needs of the day. Richard Branson of Virgin may be one such individual. Aside from pursuing his burning interest in space travel, Branson plans to donate personal profits from his rail and airline ventures, amounting to $3 billion over the next 10 years, to developing energy sources that don’t contribute to global warming.
Eric E. Schmidt of Google, along with his wife Wendy, have donated more than $100 million to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which helps oceanographers explore undersea volcanoes and strange life forms.
A friendship between Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg and Larry Ellison of Oracle gave birth to the Ellison Medical Foundation. Ellison has donated about a half billion dollars to science.
Gordon Moore of Intel has donated to physics, biology, botany, geology, ocean science, environment, forestry and conservation.
While some may be troubled about wealthy philanthropists leading science into their own personal quests, on the other hand, there are no panels of experts weighing and comparing merits in order to decide where the funding goes. The money of the philanthropist arrives fresh and unfettered by bureaucracy.
So when it comes to billionaire philanthropists, society gets both edges of the sword, the edge that cuts the cake of personal passion, and the cutting edge of science.