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Last April, President Obama assembled some of the nation’s most august scientific dignitaries at the White House. Joking that his grades in physics made him a dubious candidate for “scientist in chief,” he spoke of using technological innovation “to grow our economy” and unveiled “the next great American project”: a $100 million initiative to probe the mysteries of the human brain.

He invoked the government’s leading role in a history of scientific glories, from putting a man on the moon to creating the Internet. The Brain Initiative, as he described it, would be a continuation of that grand tradition, an ambitious rebuttal to deep cuts in federal financing for scientific research.

“We can’t afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races ahead,” Obama said. “We have to seize them. I don’t want the next job-creating discoveries to happen in China or India or Germany. I want them to happen right here.”

Absent from his narrative was the back story, one that illustrates a profound change taking place in the way science is paid for and practiced in America. The government initiative grew out of richly financed private research: A decade before, Paul 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.

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

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.

“For better or worse,” said Steven 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.”

These wealthy people have mounted a private war on disease, with new protocols that break down walls between academia and industry to turn basic discoveries into effective treatments. They have rekindled traditions of scientific exploration by financing hunts for dinosaur bones and giant sea creatures. They are even beginning to challenge the federal government in the costly game of big science, with innovative ships, undersea craft, giant telescopes and in a mission to deep space.

Individualistic, entrepreneurial

The new philanthropists represent the breadth of American business, people such as Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor (and founder of the media company that bears his name); James Simons (hedge funds) and David Koch (oil and chemicals), among hundreds of wealthy donors. Especially prominent, though, are some of the boldest-face names of the tech world, among them Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence Ellison (Oracle).

This is philanthropy in the age of the new economy, financed with its outsize riches, practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed. The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot, or will not, consider.

That personal setting of priorities is what troubles some in the science establishment. Many of the patrons, they say, are ignoring basic research — the kind that investigates the riddles of nature and has produced centuries of breakthroughs, even whole industries — for a jumble of popular, feel-good fields such as environmental studies and space exploration.

As the power of philanthropic science has grown, so has the pitch, and the edge, of the debate. Nature, a family of leading science journals, has published a number of editorials, one warning that while “we applaud and fully support the injection of more private money into science,” the financing could also “skew research” toward fields more trendy than central.

“Physics isn’t sexy,” William Press, a White House science adviser, said in an interview. “But everybody looks at the sky.”

‘The power to lead’

Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good. They worry that the philanthropic billions tend to enrich elite universities at the expense of poor ones, while undermining political support for federally sponsored research and its efforts to foster a greater diversity of opportunity — geographic, economic, racial — among the nation’s scientific investigators.

Historically, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at major initiatives suggests that the philanthropists’ war on disease risks widening that gap, as a number of the campaigns target illnesses that predominantly afflict white people: cystic fibrosis, melanoma and ovarian cancer.

Public money still accounts for most of America’s best research. What is unclear is how far or fast that balance is shifting, because no one, in or out of government, has been comprehensively tracking the magnitude and impact of private science. In recognition of its rising profile, though, the National Science Foundation recently announced plans to begin surveying the philanthropic landscape.

There are the skeptics — and the former skeptics, people such as Martin Apple, a biochemist and former head of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.

Initially, Apple said, he, too, saw the donors as superrich dabblers. Now he believes they are helping accelerate the overall pace of science. What changed his mind, he said, was watching them persevere, year after year, in pursuit of highly ambitious goals.

“They target polio and go after it until it’s done; no one else can do that,” he said, referring to the global drive to eradicate the disease. “In effect, they have the power to lead where the market and the political will are insufficient.”

Their impact seems likely to grow, given continuing federal budget wars and their enormous wealth. A New York Times analysis shows 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.

There are also signs of a growing awareness, among some philanthropists, that this influence brings a responsibility to address some of the criticisms leveled at them. Last year, a coalition of leading science foundations announced a campaign to double private spending on basic research over a decade — to $5 billion a year — as a counterweight to money rushing into health and other popular fields.

“Today, federal funding of basic research is on the decline,” the group said. “The best hope for near-term change lies with American philanthropy.”

A template

When Ellison, chief executive of Oracle, heard a Nobel laureate biologist give a talk at Stanford about artificial intelligence, he was mesmerized. It was the early 1990s, and the idea of applying fast computers to genetic riddles was new.

“I had never experienced anything like it,” Ellison recalled.

He invited the scientist, Dr. Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University, to visit him at his California estate. The visit went so well that Ellison handed the scientist a key to the house and asked him to think of it as his second home. Lederberg took him up on the offer, and over many dinners the men discussed many things, from Ellison’s early interest in molecular biology to the idea that great wealth can do great good.

In 1997, the friendship gave birth to the Ellison Medical Foundation. Hundreds of biologists have benefited from its patronage, and three have won Nobel Prizes. So far, Ellison, listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth-richest man, has donated about half a billion dollars to science.

It’s not that Ellison is the biggest or most visible of the philanthropists. That distinction probably belongs to Bill Gates, who has donated roughly $10 billion for global public health. But Ellison’s work is very much a template for the new private science.

For Wendy Schmidt, the inspiration came in 2009, from a coral reef in the Grenadine islands of the Caribbean. It was her first scuba dive, and it opened her eyes to the riot of nature. She talked it over with her husband, Eric, executive chairman of Google, and the two decided marine science needed more resources. (The government’s research fleet, 28 ships strong in 2000, has shrunk by about a third and faces further cuts.) So they set up the Schmidt Ocean Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., and poured in more than $100 million. The centerpiece is a ship nearly the length of a football field that, unlike most research vessels, has a sauna and a helicopter pad. “We want to rapidly advance scientific research, to speed it up,” Wendy Schmidt said in an interview.

In the traditional world of government-sponsored research, at agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, panels of experts pore over grant applications to decide which ones get financed, weighing such factors as intellectual merit and social value. At times, groups of distinguished experts weigh in on how to advance whole fields, recommending, for instance, the construction of large instruments and laboratories costing billions of dollars.

By contrast, the new science philanthropy is personal, anti-bureaucratic, inspirational. The philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes.

George Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about $360 million to fields such as particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy, including $35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile.

The cosmos, Mitchell said in an interview before his death last year, “is too big not to have a good map.”

The Giving Pledge

If the rich donors are to be believed, their financing of research in the years ahead will expand greatly in size and scope. A main reason is the Giving Pledge.

In 2010, Gates, along with his wife, Melinda, and the investor Warren Buffett, announced the campaign. Roughly one-fifth of America’s nearly 500 billionaires have signed up, pledging to donate the majority of their fortunes to charity.

A New York Times analysis of the pledge letters made public shows that more than 40 percent of the signers plan to finance studies in science, health and the environment. With personal fortunes in excess of $250 billion, they are promising, at a minimum, to donate more than $125 billion. How much is destined for science is unclear, but several laid out objectives that seem extraordinary.

“We want to eradicate diabetes in our lifetime,” wrote Harold Hamm, a leading figure in the North Dakota oil rush, and his wife, Sue Ann.

Jon Huntsman, a Utah billionaire whose son Jon Jr. unsuccessfully sought the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, said his philanthropy would “make sure cancer is vanquished.”

Admirers of the new patrons — and the patrons — say that, over the decades, the surge in donations will probably result in economic growth that helps the United States fend off global challengers. The private gifts, they emphasize, will become especially important if federal funding continues its downward spiral.

Shortly before he died, Mitchell, the telescope man, spoke of his concern that American science was losing its competitive edge. He cited the discovery of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle seen as imparting mass to the universe. The finding was made at a particle accelerator in Europe after tight budgets shut down a rival machine near Chicago.

“We have no excuse, for losing the lead,” Mitchell said. “We need to fix it.”

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