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The Almighty Buck United States Science

The Billionaires Privatizing American Science 279

Posted by Soulskill
from the easy-funding-in-four-words:-lab-rat-reality-show dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Government-funded science is struggling in the United States. With the unstable economy over the past decade and the growing hostility to science in popular rhetoric, basic research money is getting hard to find. Part of the gap is being filled by billionaire philanthropists. Steven Edwards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says, 'For better or worse, 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.' Vast amounts of research are now driven by names like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, David Koch, and Eric Schmidt. While this helps in some ways, it can hurt in others. '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. ... Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good.'"
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The Billionaires Privatizing American Science

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  • Science for Profit (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ks*nut (985334)
    What could possibly go wrong? They'll "prove" that fracking doesn't pollute groundwater, nuclear plants and their waste products are safe and global warming is a myth. Oh yeah, the Earth is 6,000 years old and Intelligent Design is science. We, our children and our grandchildren will all profit from this!
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Nuclear plants can be safe if and only if you don't rely on designs from the 60s.... Look up Thorium cycle reactors. Their waste products, not so much, but modern ones produce less of the above.

      But don't let facts get in the way of your rant. Carry on...

      • The problem remains that you have to put that waste somewhere. It's one of the biggest NIMBY problems of our times, everyone wants the "cheap" electricity (it's not that cheap once you factor in risk and waste deposit, but who cares about problems that might be or problems that only affect us in 30 years, i.e. long after I left office?) but nobody wants to deal with it. Thorium reactors have a completely different problem (like, say, that you probably do NOT want certain states to run them, considering that

        • The proper long-term destiny of nuclear waste is to be recycled into new fuel. But so long as Cold War warheads are so cheap and while we wait for lower-cost recycling methods, we have an ideal place to store it. We just have to get rid of one item of low-grade, long-term biological waste first: Harry Reid.

        • As I understood it, the idea was to process fuel from older reactors into something with a lower half life. Fact is, we have a lot of waste to deal with and the lower the half life the better.

          In any case I think freezing R&D on fission because some 30+ year old reactors had fairly well contained accidents might be a bad idea. Just because the older reactors or even current ones aren't as foolproof as we'd like doesn't mean they can't be.

          • I'm certainly no nuclear physicist, but doesn't lower half life also mean faster decay and more radiation?

            • From what I recall of my physics, no, but I will listen to the experts on that - I may recall wrong. I seem to recall that it depends on the material. The point being that it might be easier to contain even deadly radiation for 100 years than moderate radiation for 10 000 years. Ever try designing a container to last 10 or 100 thousand years?

          • Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that at least a couple of Fukushima reactors are a *long* way away from being well contained,with the expectation being that they will continue spewing contaminated material into the environment for years, possibly decades, before they can actually be decommissioned.

            I agree that freezing R&D into fission is probably the wrong reaction, but a bigger issue would seem to me to be changing the economic realities that make corner-cutting so lucrative an

            • Well, simply put, how is Fukushima compared to Chernobyl? We may just be getting a bit better at this and the fact is, our world is fairly large and the nuclear power related incidents so far are relatively minor.

              Your idea is pretty good, but why would that company not also cut corners? I don't get how centralizing helps - it just gives a central point for the corruption to occur. Or maybe living in Africa has made me a bit cynical.

              • by Immerman (2627577)

                I haven't done anything like due diligence, but I've heard from some places that, in terms of total expected environmental contamination, Fukushima is projected to be far worse. They didn't have the initial high-intensity blast, but they also aren't in a situation where they can simply entomb the reactor until it cools down - it'd just melt it's way down into the groundwater supply.

                As to why the reactor company wouldn't cut corners - well, presumably you'd have multiple companies selling modular reactors,

                • I haven't done nearly enough due diligence on Fukushima either, but I did get the impression it was better handled. Then we're comparing it to the Russians, so that may not be hard. I think the point being that a more modern passive shutdown reactor would fair better.

                  The rational(?) power generating corporations may not be that much better than the general populace. Having worked a bit in the industry, I have seen them cut corners happily... Then again, this is Africa, and I think I may well be cynical. Com

                  • by Immerman (2627577)

                    Actually - the power companies may cut corners, but they'll tend to do it rationally - i.e. any way they can maximize corporate and personal profits, amortization included, and with the awareness that if there is a disaster they're totally screwed anyway so why bother considering it. So not a lot of incentive to make sure reactors remain safe unless the managers are actually going to be on-site close enough to have a high chance of being killed or terminally poisoned by any disaster. And you tell me, how

      • It's not the power plants, it's their waste. Radioactive is not healthy for the children, or anything else.
        • Wow, given the comments here, it is like I didn't even mention the waste! Amazing.

          As noted elsewhere, there are reactors that improve on the current state of affairs re: waste.

    • by reedk (43097) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:14AM (#46497799) Homepage
      So we can't trust private citizens to guide science, but should have complete faith in appointed government beueaucrats and regulators?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:59AM (#46497979)

      The article and summary emphasize individuals who are funding scientific research, emphasizing the "philanthropic" model, including some of the problem with it. Most of the comments here take that bait and read this as "rich guys (mostly) funding science -- is this evil?". In fact, private corporations have funded fundamental and applied scientific work in the US and abroad for many decades. Bell Labs, IBM, General Electric, and so on. Was the transistor an important scientific discovery? The Nobel committee seemed to think so, and its change to society undoubtedly profound. Was it funded publicly? No. In fact, not only was it funded by a private corporation, the scientists were not independent in the least. They were not university researchers with funding from the private corporation -- they were employees. The scientists jobs depended on preserving and maintaining dominance of a private monopoly on telephone service. Was the transistor an evil plot by a private corporation? Yeah, it kind of was, actually.

      Legally and in practice of funding research, the difference between corporations and individuals is very small. Many corporations have closed their private labs and fund chairs at universities instead. This is basically cheaper for them..... wait, I mean "more efficient" in the economic sense. It also allows for better decoupling of paycheck and results. Scientists may get a grant from Monsanto or the Keck foundation or Microsoft or whoever, and others may question whether the research is biased, but the scientists is probably not solely dependent on that source of funding.

      FWIW, government funded research has implied biases too. The researchers at national labs and those funded by NSF, DOE, NIH, and NASA are definitely not given open-ended grants without continual scrutiny of topics being worked on and results.

      In summary, this is neither that new or surprising. Government funding for science (especially at NIH) is way down. The huge income inequality in the US means there are many more obscenely rich people, most of them well-educated and many with technical backgrounds. As a research scientist, I'm happy to see them "giving back", at least partly. It's only natural that they would choose areas they are interested. I don't see much reason to expect results more biased or fraudulent than other scientific work. Of course, the better solution would be for the rest of the country to take (ie, tax) the money from the rich people and fund science collectively.
       

      • by sylvandb (308927)

        In summary, this is neither that new or surprising. Government funding for science (especially at NIH) is way down.

        There is no such thing as "government funding."

        All funding is private until the government appropriates it and calls it their own.

        If you don't like how other private parties allocate their funds, allocate yours differently.

    • Flamebait?! I wish I could mod you up as Informative. You didn't site references, but they shouldn't be to hard to find using any search engine.
    • by sylvandb (308927)

      What could possibly go wrong? ... We, our children and our grandchildren will all profit from this!

      Then you had better get ready to pay your own way.

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @07:40AM (#46497699) Homepage

    Billionaires tend to be far more critical of what their money finances than government granting authorities. Consider all of the scandals involving made up data. A billionaire who funded that might get it checked out before allowing it to be published. A government agency won't. A billionaire who discovers shenanigans certainly won't fund that researcher again, a government agency probably will.

    Now I know a lot of that is driven by "publish or perish" but it's pretty obvious that private donors are more likely to scrutinize than public sector donors. If that weren't the case, the various public funding agencies would be bringing the fraudulent researchers up on criminal charges for defrauding the tax payer.

    But in reality, this should be welcomed. This is how science got funded during its first centuries as a discipline when many of the giants of science did their work. Billionaires have the luxury of blowing their money however they see fit. All a researcher who thinks a field might prove promising has to do is make a case to the man with the money. There's no public interest involved, just his personal interest. That means no red tape, no government oversight, etc.

    • What if the Billionaire WANTS a certain answer and lets the scientist know it, so that the "data" can be published for a huge return on investment for the billionaire? Tobacco industry did this.

      Or maybe billionaire just has an answer he emotionally wants to hear and funds science to get that instead of sensible science? If Jenny McCarthy had billions what sort of research d'you think she might fund?

      Or what if billionaire wants research on life extending treatments for him and him alone and screw publishing?

      I don't see any compelling reason billionare science would be any better than publicly funded science. I'd rather everyone own the results, too, than a billionaire.

      I mean, one thing a billionare is VERY good at is hoarding good things (money) for themselves AREN'T THEY.

      --PeterM

      • by rubycodez (864176)

        IPCC

      • by Flammon (4726)
        It's their (billionaire's) money. They can do whatever they want with it as long as they don't hurt anyone else. Government money though is stolen money. Stealing people's money to fund a pet science project is immoral and I don't support it.
        • If you don't believe that the government should support research and technology, why do you still use the internet and the web- which were both developed with public funding by DARPA and CERN, respectively? This is the classic hypocrisy of libertarians- when it comes time to pay they claim it's a form of theft, but they have no problem with using all the public services- roads, universities, the internet- that have been paid for with my tax dollars. They're happy to take government services, they just don't
          • Economists call it a sunk cost - it's a cost that's already been incurred, and cannot be recovered. We should still try and recover whatever benefit there is, even if continuing the behavior into the future is harmful.

            Sunk costs: Even if your farm is going to turn a loss this year, you STILL need to sell the corn crop and minimize your losses!

      • What if the Billionaire WANTS a certain answer and lets the scientist know it, so that the "data" can be published for a huge return on investment for the billionaire? Tobacco industry did this.

        Or maybe billionaire just has an answer he emotionally wants to hear and funds science to get that instead of sensible science? If Jenny McCarthy had billions what sort of research d'you think she might fund?

        Or what if billionaire wants research on life extending treatments for him and him alone and screw publishing?

        I don't see any compelling reason billionare science would be any better than publicly funded science. I'd rather everyone own the results, too, than a billionaire.

        I mean, one thing a billionare is VERY good at is hoarding good things (money) for themselves AREN'T THEY.

        --PeterM

        And the incentives of the people deciding which research will get public funding differ exactly how? You seem to start with the assumption that the career bureaucrat won't dispose of assets under his control to his greatest advantage whereas the career businessman will. I'm not seeing it. [blogspot.com]

    • by metlin (258108) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:51AM (#46497943) Journal

      You're an idiot. There was a recent article on how Columbia fired two of its eminent public intellectuals [thenation.com]. Why? For not bringing in enough grant money. Not because they didn't publish, or not because they weren't any good. No, because they weren't politically savvy enough to bring in grant money.

      Both Vance and Hopper had 30 and 26 years at Columbia respectively, and highly respected in their fields. They were let go because the expectation was that they bring in ~80% of their income from outside grants. Not doing research, not publishing, but bringing in *money*. No wonder people like Grigori Perelman hate the current academia.

      You aren't doing science then, you are rewarding those that can *market* their subjects well.

      But in reality, this should be welcomed.

      Really? If you'd read the piece, you will notice that subjects with seemingly little application are the ones that get little to not attention. Because they are neither utilitarian nor do they make them feel good.

      Take the Fourier transform for instance -- once upon a time, it would have been considered pure math, but today, DSP wouldn't exist without it. To focus only on those that *we* think are utilitarian can be extremely myopic, not to mention downright arrogant.

      This is how science got funded during its first centuries as a discipline when many of the giants of science did their work.

      That is downright silly. Just because something was done a certain way is not an argument for not using a better way. Using patrons has always been problematic, because patrons always favored things that they liked, with a vested interest.

      If we still did things the way they were done, democracy wouldn't exist. As a concept, it is downright radical and new - giving power to the people?! Imagine that!

      Similarly, the idea that people would fund science for the common good is just as radical, and going back to having patrons is pushing us back to the dark ages. We should be moving forward, not backward.

    • by StormReaver (59959) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:54AM (#46498207)

      Billionaires tend to be far more critical of what their money finances than government granting authorities.

      True, but the outcome is not usually what you are implying. Billionaires tend to put their money where there is the most to gain for themselves, while governments have a stronger motivation to fund important fundamental discoveries that do not provide an immediate return on investment.

      Consider all of the scandals involving made up data.

      Both privately and publicly funded entities do this. At least publicly funded entities can be cross-checked. Privately funded entities are under no pressure to disclose all their sources, and will be even less so as private funding of science becomes more socially acceptable.

      A billionaire who discovers shenanigans certainly won't fund that researcher again, a government agency probably will.

      To a billionaire, "shenanigans" means that the "researcher" didn't arrive at the results the billionaire paid for. So yes, the billionaire will not fund that researcher again.

      ...it's pretty obvious that private donors are more likely to scrutinize than public sector donors.

      Yes, but only to make sure that the private donors' political biases take precedence over the truth.

      Billionaires have the luxury of blowing their money however they see fit.

      And they will only "blow" their money on endeavors that make them more money. How do you think they became billionaires to begin with?

      This is how science got funded during its first centuries as a discipline when many of the giants of science did their work.

      Lots and lots and lots of good science had to fight and uphill battle against the political desires of private patrons back then, which held back scientific progress rather than promoted it.

      No, private funding of the sciences was, is, and will be a disaster.

    • Most of the work in the 19th century was funded by the British and French governments.
  • by glennrrr (592457) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:00AM (#46497753)
    Given the many trillions of dollars committed to Social Security / Medicare, and the amazing ability of baby boomers to get their way politically, it seems pretty obvious that everything that isn't Social Security, Medicare better be prepared to go private.
  • by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:07AM (#46497767) Homepage Journal

    This seems to be a return to some very old models of research- think Aristotle, Leonardo Da Vinci, where research was not government supported, but either the hobby of the very rich, or the very rich paying someone. I suppose that it could be considered as government supported, as the very rich *were* the government. The institutional government supporting research appears to be a 19th or 20th century change, and that is dominated by military motives.

    The super rich have more money than they could possibly spend- why not let them spend that money in the way that they want? Be it driven by guilt or by the desire to make more money... I'd much rather them spend the money on science as opposed to spending their money on becoming part of the government (think Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg in the US and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy).

    • This seems to be a return to some very old models of research

      Not entirely. Aristotle, Da Vinci etc were given leave to "explore". They were funded to do curiosity driven research as well as the "build a better widget" kind. Today's billionaires, very like governments, are focussed on getting better widgets rather than improving mankind's knowledge. The problem is that it can take 50-100 years before our new fundamental knowledge can be applied so by the time that they all wake up to find that applied science has slowed to a crawl it will be a long time before the da

    • Yeah, but the average person did not benefit from any of the work that Aristotle or Da Vinci were doing whereas many of the drugs today were discovered through basic science research funded by the NIH
  • by MacTO (1161105) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:07AM (#46497769)

    Private funding is great in many areas. This is particularly true of science that addresses problems that society needs to solve (e.g. medicine) or that captures people's imaginations (e.g. astronomy).

    However, there is a lot of science that needs to be done that doesn't fit into either category. That is where governments need to step in.

    • by NapalmV (1934294)

      Private funding is great in many areas. This is particularly true of science that addresses problems that society needs to solve (e.g. medicine) or that captures people's imaginations (e.g. astronomy).

      I'll leave it to you as an exercise to compare the amounts of private funding that went to astronomy vs. "economics" (paid-for publications and think-tanks included). Why would that have happened?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:54AM (#46498213)

      Private funding in medicine sucks. If the new drug you're testings turns out to not work well or produces some really bad side effects you can't sell it and all the money seems lost (you've learned something, but you can't sell or quantify that). So there's a lot of pressure to bury the facts and get your drugs to market as long as we'll make a profit before the lawsuits come in.

      We shouldn't have privately funded medical research.

  • by Lawrence_Bird (67278) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:23AM (#46497837) Homepage

    It really was not until the Manhattan project and post WWII cold war that government became the patron of scientists. Was Diract writing grant requests? Bohr? Heisenberg? Shockley (et al)?

    This is a really encouraging sign and should be looked upon favorably even if it is not prefect. Philanthropists have been on the sidelines for a long time now and it will be a learning process for all involved on how to best utilize funding.

    • by rubycodez (864176)

      nonsense, governments have been funding science for at least three thousand years

  • by dabridgham (814799) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:28AM (#46497851)

    I don't think so. Basic scientific research has been privately funded for most of those centuries. Government funding is a relatively recent change.

    • by Immerman (2627577) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @10:30AM (#46498423)

      Really? Patronage was the norm for a long time, but who were the patrons? Mostly the upper nobility who had money to burn - aka the government of the time. How often do you suppose the king kept separate treasuries for the nation and himself? Or the nobility, who were basically state or county governments. Sure, you had the merchant-princes as well whose empire was forged from trade routes rather than farmland, but basically those with money *were* the government.

  • Human space exploration is an ideal field for private research. There is now a body of billionaires with a geeky interest in what is out there. When you consider that any new initiative, such as a lunar base or a Mars expedition, will require assuming great personal risk, there is no Western government that would run the political risk of subjecting astronauts to a high probability of death far from Earth. Remember those long periods of space shutdown after each Shuttle accident?

    Another rich field is energy

  • How much is enough? (Score:5, Informative)

    by jamesl (106902) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:47AM (#46497927)

    The poster asserts, "Government-funded science is struggling in the United States."

    The Federal Government spends more than $130 billion on research and development (R&D) each year, conducted primarily at universities and Federal laboratories.
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog... [whitehouse.gov]

    How much should the taxpayers spend on research? Show your work.

  • Yes, because "feel-good" fields like space exploration have never produced anything for the common good.
  • We have slowing been destroying what it means to be a civic society for a long time. Not many people meet in the park these days to discuss ideas (or gossip) on Sunday afternoons.

    And remember when Reagan said that "government is the problem". And all of those names on buildings at your local university? Someone's name on a building helps insure the university does that person's bidding.

    So I have an idea.... why don't we stop giving our money to rich assholes or corrupt government assholes, and since neither

    • by stenvar (2789879)

      Not many people meet in the park these days to discuss ideas (or gossip) on Sunday afternoons.

      No, we meet on the Internet instead.

      We used to own the government. Now private enterprise does.

      That's utter nonsense. The US government has always been in the hands of a rich elite. It's just that the damage it could do was limited by its limited role. But the rich elite has figured out that by promising people "stuff" (social security, health care, cheap homes, etc.), they can convince them to give them more and m

  • ....the employees have control over the peoples funding of government. and That is inherent Corruption incentive.

    How are the so called representatives to represent the people in this republic when they have no way of knowing what the people want?
    The "No Vote" won the last election by far, worse qualified voter turnout % since before 1948 if not of all time. But Taxpayers still fund government, and this doesn't change..

    What is missing is the paperwork allowing the taxpayers to say how their taxes are to be u

  • by anorlunda (311253) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:53AM (#46498201) Homepage

    I'm sure that this news may make a lot of slashdotters uncomfortable. But I ask you to think of the alternative. They could spend their billions influencing elections. How many attack ads can you buy for $75 billion?

    Here's a challenge. How should billionaires spend their money?

    I'm not asking for how you would spend the billions if it was yours, nor am I interested in your concept of social justice or what is beneficial for mankind. I'm challenging you to try to imagine the world from, the billionaire's view.

  • We've got tons of "basic research" which doesn't go anywhere. How often on this site do we hear about a new breakthrough in solar energy or batteries or cellulosic biofuel that ends up going nowhere? Perhaps we really do need more in the way of applied research and development; get one of these "breakthroughs" to actually do something.

    And then there's physics, which in terms of basic research has spent decades trying to break the Standard Model with more and more powerful accelerators, and gotten zip for

  • In the old days did not the kinds have Imperial Mathematicians, imperial astronomers, and what not?

    The only thing new here is that we now know who the kings really are.

  • When the alternative is government funding, you're at the mercy of political winds and the loss of a patron in the next election.

  • Seems to me you're talking about SOCIALISM, or even worse, COMMUNISM.

    I didn't sign no contract, and there ain't no such thing as society. That's a lie told by Karl Marx.

    — All of America

    • by jmd (14060)

      Soon Americans will call it .. Socialism Security!!

      (At which point Americans will vote to take Social Security away from the government and put the money in the private hands of Wall Street banks.)

  • Federal science funding is near an all time high (disregarding the one-time stimulus nonsense):

    http://www.nature.com/news/201... [nature.com]

    Whether billionaires also spend money on additional research makes no iota of difference to the publicly funded research.

    Furthermore, large-scale government funding of research is historically a relatively recent phenomenon and closely tied to the rise of socialism and communism: socialist and communist regimes in large part tried to direct research for what their central planners

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