Is science becoming the domain of billionaires?

Private investment is increasingly important to scientific endeavors, with organizations like the XPRIZE Foundation leveraging private money to drive radical breakthroughs in areas ranging from space travel to oil-spill cleanup, as I reported recently. Now, this weekend's New York Times has a summary of projects supported by wealthy investors, ranging from Anousheh Ansari, an XPRIZE pioneer, to Wendy and Eric Schmidt, who have given more than $100 million to the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise,” notes the Times, which quotes Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as saying, “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.”

Unfortunately, those individuals may be pursuing the same goals as public R&D initiatives. An editorial in the journal Nature Neuroscience puts it this way: “The contribution of private philanthropy to research has been growing. Although these large infusions of money can galvanize research, private and public funds now increasingly seem to support similar projects. Caution is warranted to prevent funding for specific topics from skewing research to the detriment of other fields.”

Another problem may be that funding is concentrated near elite institutions to the detriment of more mainstream ones. As the Times puts it, “In Cambridge, MA—home to MIT and Harvard—[privately funded institutes] include the $100 million Ragon Institute for immunology research, the $150 million Koch Institute for cancer studies, the $165 million Stanley Center for psychiatric research, the $250 million Wyss Institute for biologically inspired engineering, the $350 million McGovern Institute for brain research, the $450 million Whitehead Institute for biomedical research, and the $700 million Broad Institute for genome research.

The Times quotes Fiona E. Murray, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT, as saying that science philanthropy might simply help “rich fields, universities, and people get richer. If I’m a rich person, I’m going to give to a leading institution—to Harvard or Princeton.” That pattern, she told the Times, “poses big issues” for the nation.

Read the complete Times article here.

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