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The Almighty Buck United States Science

The Billionaires Privatizing American Science 279

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 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:39AM (#46497695)
    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!
  • by MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:40AM (#46497699)

    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.


  • by reedk ( 43097 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:14AM (#46497799) Homepage
    So we can't trust private citizens to guide science, but should have complete faith in appointed government beueaucrats and regulators?
  • by Lawrence_Bird ( 67278 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:23AM (#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 metlin ( 258108 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:51AM (#46497943) Journal

    You're an idiot. There was a recent article on how Columbia fired two of its eminent public intellectuals []. 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 KingOfBLASH ( 620432 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:52AM (#46497951) Journal

    The problem is we don't actually know what is and isn't a waste.

    A lot of very useful science started out as just some researchers pie in the sky distraction. For instance, much of the work in number theory and pure mathematics of the past few hundred years had no clear use. In Hilberts autobiography, "Apology of a Mathematician" he apologized for spending his life playing with puzzles that he thought were fun.

    However, actually number theory (especially now that we have computers) actually turned out to be QUITE useful.

    The problem is you don't know what will or won't be useful ex-ante. There are certainly benefits to saying "we should find a cure for _____" However, perhaps some microbiologist who just wanted to see what he could grow if he tried culturing a geyser will discover something revolutionary. (Really happened. Modern microbiology relies on replicating DNA which uses a mechanism found in a bacteria that figured out how to live in a geyser).

    Really we need a mix. If a billionaire likes the idea of going into space, we should welcome him to try. However, we should still support pure research because of the probably effects on society.

  • Re:Good! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by aminorex ( 141494 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @10:47AM (#46498173) Homepage Journal

    The OP's comments on the "social contract" refer to his desire for people with guns to take from my science projects and from the people I support, and give to his science projects, and the people he supports. Calling it "the social contract that cultivates science for the common good" is despicable propaganda. It's funny how
    "the common good" always involves hiring thugs to threaten other people so that you get your way.

  • by StormReaver ( 59959 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @10:54AM (#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.'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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @10:54AM (#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.

  • Re:Good! (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @11:17AM (#46498351)

    Welfare, for instance. Why do we have a welfare system that actually encourages generational dependence on the government? Why are welfare recipients using their benefits to purchase luxury goods? Why do 1 in 4 Americans qualify for welfare? Why do illegal aliens often get welfare benefits?

    You do realize public welfare is 1/1000th the cost of corporate welfare right? Oil subsidies are the largest welfare payout granted by the Federal government, dwarfing the amount paid out to ALL human recipients. That answers many of your questions right there. And I hate to say it, but those "rightmost" elements are almost completely to blame for that situation.

  • by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @11:30AM (#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.

  • Re:Good! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @12:14PM (#46498693)

    Why do people buy "luxury" goods with handouts? why ever not? It may be that they live a life so frugal that they have leftover ressources. Or maybe you are one of these "small government" tyoes who think that there should be a list of items that you are allowed to buy with food stamps -- which there already is, shockingly enough -- but think that giving parents vouchers to put their kids in whatever school is fine, because government has no business to run our lives.

    If you believe in the free market, and simultaneoulsy believe in a safety net -- which is a wholly reasonable and humane position to have -- you should demand that the government handouts be in the form of cash. Sure, sometimes, it will be used to buy dope, but most of the time, people will use it in ways which are good for them. And it will not cause stupid market distortions and serve as a handout to the financial industry.

    Also if you think that people get stuck in wellfare because of wellfare, let me just point out to you that countries whith more generous wellfare are also much better at getting people out of it. This is because to educate yourself, search effectively for a job or land a job, you must have the time and ressources. Minimal wellfare is indeed a trap which barely prevents people from dying of hunger, but to get people out of poverty, you need to invest in them, and this means much larger handouts.

  • by amorsen ( 7485 ) <> on Sunday March 16, 2014 @06:32PM (#46501229)

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

    It is only private if the money was made without the help of society. That is never the case. Society took part in the investment, it has a right to share in the profit.

  • by metlin ( 258108 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @07:52PM (#46501689) Journal

    If a department is not serving its stated function, and cannot propose a rational plan for doing so, then it should be eliminated because it's a waste of our money, and therefore our time and effort.

    Huh? What does this even mean? You sound as if you are regurgitating the small government propaganda without any sound argument.

    The stated function is funding research, and that's getting done. The rational plan is funding scientists who are the most eligible to win the research grants. What is so hard about that?

    The problem is the expectation of something "fruitful" to come out of research. As any half-decent scientist will tell you, a lot of good science comes from learning from our failures, and examining questions that may seem pointless today.

    NSF grants have funded several amazing scientists and their research -- how do you even *begin* to "measure" the purpose of scientific research? The whole idea behind scientific research is asking questions that may seem trivial or even meaningless. The only viable measure is publications, and even that is meaningless -- would you rather have one outstanding paper every decade or a bunch of pointless papers to check a box?

    The myopic outlook that decries large government also decries spending on science and research, never mind the fact that open science is what helps civilization as a whole. Closed research funded by the beck and call of corporations defeats the scientific process -- science is about openness, understanding, and investigating hard questions that may not have tangible benefits for the next few hundred years or more.

    And sometimes, that means our time and effort are spent doing absolutely silly things that may have impacts that we do not yet understand. If pursuit of knowledge for its own sake isn't a good enough reason, then I weep for the future of this country.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead