The Privatization of Science by Billionaires

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    Mar 18, 2014 1:07 AM GMT
    Last April, President Obama assembled some of the nation’s most august scientific dignitaries in the East Room of the White House. Along the way, he invoked the government’s leading role in a history of scientific glories, from putting a man on the moon to creating the Internet.

    Absent from his narrative, though, was the back story, one that underscores a profound change taking place in the way science is paid for and practiced in America. In fact, the government initiative grew out of richly financed private research: A decade before, Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, had set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated $500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, had then established brain institutes at Yale, Columbia and the University of California. Scientists from those philanthropies, in turn, had helped devise the Obama administration’s plan.

    American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

    Do you think this is good or bad to our society?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/science/billionaires-with-big-ideas-are-privatizing-american-science.html?src=me&ref=general
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    Mar 18, 2014 2:43 AM GMT
    Why shouldn't people be able to make a profit off intellectual achievements, whether they be scientific, mathematical, creative, etc.?
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    Mar 18, 2014 2:45 AM GMT
    The Brain Institute in Seattle is actually non-profit. Paul Allen gave the Institute $500 million to map the brain. It attracts incredible scientists to the Seattle area.
  • conservativej...

    Posts: 2465

    Mar 18, 2014 1:03 PM GMT
    Though it may be a surprise to many due to their lack of view inside operations of the 1 percent and 0.1 percent, science for the most part has been private for decades. Look at the U.S. Federal Budget and realize that of the dollars spent the largest single amount goes to personnel cost and social programs. The Centers for Disease Control for instance spends less than 20% of its budget on laboratory support and real world scientific research, that including the financial cost of personnel out of a $6.6 billion dollar budget.

    When I first entered the workforce I worked in a manufacturing plant owned by my father as a laborer. In those days you had to learn the business. My dad held a Ph.D. in Physics and an MBA from Harvard. Approximately 30% of the gross revenue was directed towards Research and Development. That expenditure survived across all operating units and as the business grew though the percentage fell due to the increased size of the parent company, it remained large.

    Years later this applied research led to more fundamental research especially in pharmaceuticals. That is true today on a global scale.

    The danger perceived by many in regards to the privatization of "science" is perhaps real from their perspective, especially if their political perspective is liberal. Business organizations in general, especially those with the need to operate research organizations, are far more conservative than the general public. Research operations as you would see in government in the U.S. are often race based as to topic chosen. For instance someone posted an article on the rate of HIV infection occurring in young gay black men in Atlanta. CDC located there, is piling cash to identify causes of this rate of infection while pulling research dollars away from general HIV research. This would rarely be in the case private funded research, though sickle cell anemia has been and likely will always be a race-specific disease.

    One thing is for certain: Pandora's Box is open in regards to wealth and science.


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    Mar 18, 2014 9:08 PM GMT
    The story was not really about privatizing science but about wealthy donors paying for public science. (And thus influencing what research gets done.)

    But what the story does not even mention is a fundamental structural problem in US science: it is a pyramid scheme. A successful research scientist spends most of his or her time raising funds, while "his" research is carried out by a team of graduate students and post-docs. Those students and post-docs graduate every two to four years, at which time, suddenly, there are two or five times as many scientists specializing in that research topic. The more successful the lab, the more exponential the rate of growth. The government cannot increase funding at that rate.

    Most of those people have to find work in the private sector. Therefore, it is implicit that almost all science should be privately funded. Unless you can somehow convince all of those people in the training pipeline to sacrifice 10 or 15 years of their lives and then just drop out of science. (Which is mostly what happens now.)

    Of course, the whole enterprise could be re-structured in some way. For example, spend more money on non-proliferating research institutes and less on universities. (For goodness sake don't spend more on the National Labs. They just skim-off 90% overhead and subcontract any actual work back to the universities.)

    Really, nobody has a good idea how to fix this. In brutal Darwinian terms, maybe it doesn't actually need fixing. Except that the system rewards those who best play the system, not necessarily those who do good science.
  • conservativej...

    Posts: 2465

    Mar 19, 2014 11:07 PM GMT
    mindgarden saidThe story was not really about privatizing science but about wealthy donors paying for public science. (And thus influencing what research gets done.)

    But what the story does not even mention is a fundamental structural problem in US science: it is a pyramid scheme. A successful research scientist spends most of his or her time raising funds, while "his" research is carried out by a team of graduate students and post-docs. Those students and
    ...
    ...
    ...

    those who best play the system, not necessarily those who do good science.


    So what do you think is good science? And should the private sector be forced to pay for science that is of no value to it as a private enterprise?