Navigating the Billionaires Who Are "Privatizing American Science"

Every now and then, the mainstream media parachutes into philanthropy to write about some hugely important trend in giving.

The kind of stuff that we at IP write about every day. 

This weekend, the New York Times ran a lengthy feature about the growth of private philanthropy in basic science research, both how it's picking up the slack for government cuts and the consequences of relying on philanthropists instead of public funds.

Over here at IP, we talk often about billionaires supplanting public funding for science research, usually with a focus on where it's going, along with why and how it's getting there. The Times feature is a pretty darn good analysis of the broader implications of the fact that "American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise."

“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “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.”

The topline takeaways of the article are:  

  • Scientists fear less glamorous research is losing out to a hodgepodge of trendy, glitzy causes. Also at stake is the social contract that government should cultivate science for the overall public good. 
  • The Giving Pledge is having a big impact on the increase in science funding. The Times found that the "40 or so richest science donors who have signed a pledge to give most of their fortunes to charity have assets surpassing a quarter-trillion dollars."
  • Many of the causes championed by billionaire donors are personal, as opposed to systematic. Fighting disease is a major magnet for funds, often inspired by family trauma. This could worsen the problem of unequal attention given to specific diseases. 
  • Public funds still back the large majority of the best research in America. But as government funding is cut, it's hard to tell exactly how much private philanthropy is edging in, since nobody comprehensively tracks its magnitude. 

That last point is particularly salient, and an issue we wrangle with daily at Inside Philanthropy as we chart these emerging powerhouses in private science funding. To begin navigating some of the biggest funders of science research, see our GrantFinder here, and explore our archive for blog posts on individuals. For starters, here's a handful of IP links on some of the key players discussed in the Times feature: