“Give a Buck” for Science: funding for science research and who should pay

The question of who funds science or who should fund science, has been a contentious one only in recent history. Most people are not aware that, historically, science was funded through private patronage; wealthy families; key political figures, even the Pope and the Catholic Church. One of the first examples of government-funded research was the support for the voyage of Darwin’s Beagle by the British government. In this case, mapmaking was the desired outcome, not science and research. Beginning in the 20th century, most science discovery was funded by a mix of government, institution and foundation grants.
What’s good about government funding? The government funds basic science, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Basic research, like defense, is a nearly pure public good. The private sector is not usually interested in providing solely for the public good by supporting basic science. Why? When basic research results in a discovery, it is easily copied, and therefore not a good candidate for future profits and private investment.  Moreover, the government doesn’t claim intellectual property rights so a scientist has claims over their own work. Government funding allows research and development and risk-taking, in particular it funds younger, creative, and unknown scientists with new ideas. What are the challenges when we look to the government to fund research? These days government, already bureaucratic and often inefficient, increasingly risks polarization/politicization.
It seems we’ve now come full circle. The funding pendulum is swinging back to the private sector. Is this good or bad? What does it mean if private industry and individuals influence the direction of science research? This is a good development according to Nobel Laureate Dr. Peter Agre, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Director at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. In a recent conversation, he explained to me how the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was founded by gifts from the Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Foundation and that more recently Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies have provided massive support to sustain and enrich the institution.
He also noted that Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Gates Foundation, American Heart Foundation, American Cancer Society and the March of Dimes provide direct support to investigators and individual scientists who could not otherwise make their discoveries. In a relatively recent New York Times Article, Steven Edwards commented that, “for better or for 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.”
But is this really a problem? The truth is that the new science philanthropists represent a breadth of American business from media to hedge funds to technology. Moreover, the projects they fund are as diverse as they are. They include, funding the Giant Magellan Telescope (George P. Mitchell), art museums and research in the genetic basis of disease (Eli Broad), woman’s health and careers (Ron Perlman) and support for girl’s science careers and women in science (Sara Lee Schupf. the namesake of the Sara Lee Corp).
While public money still accounts for the vast majority of science research support, today’s philanthropists are definitely helping to accelerate the overall pace of science. In some cases, the flood of private funds has set the agenda, and the federal government increasingly follows the private lead. An example of this is the breakthrough of the DNA sequencer, funded by Sol Price (Costco). This discovery led to the Human Genome Project, a government funded effort to map all the heritable units of the human cell. The trend is unlikely to change. Some of the richest science donors have signed the Gates/Buffett pact to give most of their fortunes away and their assets surpass one quarter trillion dollars.
Though the science world in particular and the public in general may view the influence of private funding with a mix of gratitude and dread, science really needs the support of both the government and the private sector. The goal should be a partnership where the government supports basic research and private funders (individuals, corporate and foundations) support follow on research and the resulting applications. Imagine what we could achieve if we finally managed to effectively bridge the gaps between public and private funding for science.