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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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  • by inasity_rules ( 1110095 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:45AM (#46497721) Journal

    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...

  • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Sunday March 16, 2014 @08:54AM (#46497735) Homepage Journal
    Son, we live in a world that has a permanent political class, and that PPC has to be guarded by votes. Who's gonna do it? You? You, AC? The PPC has a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for basic research, and you curse the skeptics. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That basic research's death, while tragic, probably saved votes. And the PPC's existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, requires votes. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want the PPC in charge, you need the PPC in charge. We use words like procedure, program, process. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending the PPC. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very "managed" freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you bundle some campaign funds, and bring in some votes. Either way, I don't give a damn what research you think the public should support.
  • by Matt_Bennett ( 79107 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:07AM (#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).

  • Re:Good! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:43AM (#46497907)
    You are either trolling or being sarcastic, but you actually bring up what is probably the core point here.

    Many years ago, the rightmost elements decided that a strong government was not beneficial to the wealthiest citizens and in fact was a threat to them. Therefore, the goal became to reduce the size of government to the bare essentials - the smallest possible size that would protect them and their hoards - and then, control it.

    At some point several decades ago, around the time or Reagan or maybe a little earlier, it was realized the way to do this was to do this was to reduce the amount of money government had to spend. There were two ways they could accomplish this. They could either reduce taxes, or increase the debt so that interest became a more and more substantial portion of the budget. It wasn't an either/or scenario, in fact the two were completely complimentary. They went down both roads.

    For decades Republicans have been coupling tax cuts, preferentially for the wealthy to please the oligarch and corporate overlords, combined with prolific spending, preferentially on the military industrial complex (MIC).

    This has gotten us to where we are today: an unpayable debt, a military budget that exceeds the rest of the developed world combined (with a large part of that budget going directly to defense contracting companies), and the budgets for most of the 'good' parts of government (which include scientific research and programs that keep people out of abject poverty) being slashed.

    The place where the architects of this plan fucked up, and the one hope rational middle class and lower class people have to salvage the situation, is that the right also threw their lot in with the religious extremists in order to get people elected into office that otherwise would not. This has, today, given them an important faction of their bloc that continues to alienate minorities and people of more moderate viewpoints with absurd and offensive positions and statements, in some cases costing the Republicans elections. The chickens have come home to roost, so to speak.

    This is the last chance to save our society from complete control by the monied elite and corporations, which apparently are now equivalent to very, very rich people in the eyes of the government (without many of the obligations). This division must be exploited, expanded, and communicated to the voters. Also, people must be allowed and urged to vote - Republican voter suppression efforts, gerrymandering, and electoral college changes are another, more obvious, flank of this battle that results in representation in Washington that does not represent the demographics of the population they are representing. 2014 may be a lost cause, but 2016 is not. I'll have to hold my nose while I do it, but if I have to, I'll put Hillary's name on the ballot in 2016.

    Other tenets of the far right to hold the lower classes down where they belong include:
    - Continuing to tie insurance to employers - leaving the workers completely dependent upon the corporations where they are employed. Sort of the equivalent of the old 'company store' where you could spend the scrip you received as pay.
    - Cutting unemployment benefits - forcing people to stay in shitty jobs
    - Cutting or dumbing down education - a less educated populace is easier to control. Think about how many of the Founding Fathers were educated and wealthy. We can't have that again, can we?
    - Eliminating birth control - a child will force people out of higher education and into a paycheck to paycheck job to pay the bills, and as a bonus the child is likely to grow up less educated as well.
    - A war on the scientifically accepted climate change theories. Any attempt to do anything about these will result in lower profits for the Overlords.
  • by Bengie ( 1121981 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:47AM (#46497931)
    I've only experienced two types of public research
    1) Given away for free, no patents being used to hinder
    2) Patent and charge money, but that money goes back into the educational system that created them and paid for over 90% of my state uni tuition. Out of State $30k/sem, in-state $2k/sem.

    For over 30 years, my state unis have been very cheap for in-state citizens because of patents. Our state owns a lot of stem cell, pharma, bio-tech, and integrated circuit patents. Most of the money made from those patents get pumped back into the higher educational system and dramatically lower the price. We're also highly coveted because of high quality graduates. We've got freshmen getting contacted via phone by the likes of Intel, AMD, Microsoft, and Google, asking them what they plan on doing after they graduate.

    We also have a large amount of research that is state funded or alumni funded that gets released for free for the greater good of the general public.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 16, 2014 @09:59AM (#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.

... though his invention worked superbly -- his theory was a crock of sewage from beginning to end. -- Vernor Vinge, "The Peace War"