In a thought-provoking article that appeared in The Atlantic earlier this week, journalist Maribel Morey pondered whether the trend towards privatization of scientific funding should be welcomed by the American public.
According to Morey, due to the cut in federal funding, individual philanthropists have taken it upon themselves to provide large sums of money to scientific projects that are near and dear to their hearts. Jonathan and Mindy Gray, for example, have given over $30 Million to the University of Pennsylvania in order to fund cancer research at that institution. The Gray’s have specified that the funds be used for cancer research in honor of Mrs. Grays sister who passed away from ovarian cancer.
While this may seem like a praiseworthy endeavor on the part of the Grays and other philanthropists like them, critics worry, however, that by enabling privatization of science, we are essentially sidetracking the democratic process by which the public decides which research is worthy of funding and which is not.
While the concept of private funding of science may not be new, in the past, philanthropists worked through foundations and relied upon board directors and foundation trustees to allocate their donations. This third party involvement, put funding decisions at arms length from the philanthropist, and gave the impression that the money was being donated with the needs of the public in mind over the interests of the philanthropist. Nowadays, anyone with a pocket full of cash and a favorite gene or disease can use their influence to sway the balance of research to fit their personal agenda.
Nonetheless, private scientific funding offers the benefit of allowing scientists to conduct research without having to jump over many hoops and spill liters of ink in applying for research grants that they may not ever see. In fact private funding has been so important to the advancement of scientific research that the creation of America’s two largest public funding bodies, the NSF and the NIH, were inspired by private science foundations back at the turn of the century.
So which is the right way to go? Both public and private sources of funding have their evangelists and detractors. I thing you’d be hard pressed to find any research scientist who would refuse to accept money from a private donor in favor of supporting the public funding system.
I wouldn’t turn down the money. Would you?