Could a Research Project Like LIGO Come From Private Philanthropy?

The announcement that a team of scientists observed gravitational waves resulting from the collision of two black holes is being hailed as the historic culmination of decades of work by thousands of researchers. It’s also a victory for public science funding. But could private philanthropy pull off such a feat? 

The tiny chirp was picked up by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO group, and marks the first observation of gravitational waves themselves, supporting an implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity that states the fabric of space and time stretches and ripples. The work is expected to win the Nobel Prize, and if it holds up, will open up new avenues of research and our understanding of the universe.

But another dramatic element of the story is just how tremendous the work behind the discovery is. The report published last week has more than 1,000 authors from around the world. The concept behind the LIGO experiment dates back to the late 1960s. The primary backer the National Science Foundation started funding the design for the experiment in 1979, and has invested $1.1 billion in the work over more than 40 years. When funding began flowing to build the experiment in the early 1990s, it was the biggest investment the NSF had ever made. 

It’s the kind of long-term, fundamental science research that government funding is heralded for, despite agencies lately having to fight tooth and nail to protect budgets under the watch of Republican lawmakers. The New York Times described LIGO’s report as “sweet vindication” for the NSF. 

It got me wondering, though—with the rise of private science funding, is it even possible for the financial math for this kind of investment to come from a donor or foundation? Is the LIGO experiment the kind of thing that in the future might come from a multibillionaire? 

On the first question, I’d actually say that yeah, it is possible. 

We always point out that private science funding doesn’t hold a candle to government funding. The NSF’s budget in FY 2016 is $7.5 billion. Add in other agencies like the departments of Defense and Energy and the National Institutes of Health, and non-defense research spending tops $60 billion. By one estimate, combined annual basic science giving from individuals and foundations is less than $4 billion. Big picture, the narrative of private philanthropy saving the day for research is currently erroneous.

And yet…

Individual massive gifts and annual giving from some foundations continue to grow to the point that it’s entering the playing field of public funding. Look at edge cases like the largest U.S. funder, the Gates Foundation, which gave nearly $4 billion alone in 2014. Gates’ giving is clearly nothing like that of the National Science Foundation, but its sheer size demonstrates how private fortunes and philanthropic payouts are growing big enough to create ripples in the fabric of federal funding.

Individual commitments are getting crazier too—consider Ted Stanley’s $650 million gift to study the genetics of psychiatric disorders, and Paul Allen’s nine-figure giving to brain science. Gordon and Betty Moore have given more than $700 million to CalTech since 2001. While smaller in size, at a paltry $100 million over 10 years, Yuri Milner says he’s planning to give indefinite support to the search for extraterrestrial life.

Related: 

These aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, and they are extreme cases. And they don’t support one goal like the NSF's $1.1 billion support for the gravitational waves research did. But it’s just to demonstrate that a LIGO-esque commitment from one rich guy is not outside the realm of possibility. 

That said, there are qualities of the government's funding of the gravitational waves discovery that are undeniably unique, such that even if it is possible, it seems unlikely that private philanthropy as it exists today would pave the way for such a project. 

For one, there’s the timeframe. The NSF backed this work for decades. Even with challenges from politicians, the steady, plodding nature of government funding can be, in terms of science funding, kind of a plus. It’s stubborn in ways that don’t bend with the whims of a donor. 

Historically, government has invested heavily in basic research that is not in pursuit of applications, which may or may not emerge. While there are also private funders that do so, many of these huge funding initiatives from donors are a result of personal connections to an issue, or desire for a certain outcome, or just alumni ties. I’m sure NSF staff didn’t dislike a headline-news breakthrough, but it’s not really the point. The kind of science it funds is about steady advancement—two steps forward, one step back kind of stuff—as well as faith in the impact of spin off applications. 

As LIGO team members wrote in an op-ed in USA Today:

All of this would not have been possible without public funding and oversight from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the only federal funding agency devoted primarily to basic research. …

But overall, federal science funding has been allowed to stagnate in recent years, and the lack of a long-term commitment makes planning future projects like LIGO difficult. NSF had the vision to support LIGO and stay with it for many years — even in the absence of hard knowledge about the likelihood of gravitational wave detection. It takes a large number of scientists and engineers working over many years to produce a scientific breakthrough of this magnitude.

There’s a lot of talk right now about private funders picking up the slack in research, and private sources of wealth are making huge waves in certain areas. Also keep in mind that this dynamic of substantial U.S. government research funding is a relatively recent development, taking off in the 1950s, so it’s not a given that this is how it will be in the future. But if public funding doesn’t keep up, private philanthropy would have to rise massively, and in a specific way, or a crucial type of research could be seriously hurting.