Reflections on Private Funding and Scientific Discovery


In a recent editorial, Ashutosh Jogalekar celebrates the modern influx of private funding in the sciences. I’ve long been wary of the influence private interests might have on the course of science, but Jogalekar makes a pretty compelling case that private funding has, for the most part, been a good thing (the recent BICEP 2 discovery, for instance). Government funding for science has been faltering and the blame can be largely (though certainly not entirely) laid at the feet of fact-averse and superstitious congressional Republicans. Given the abject incompetence of congress and the budget short-falls they have worked to guarantee, the willingness of wealthy individuals to step in and provide financial support for science is a welcome relief.

That said, it is worth noting that private funding of scientific endeavors should still be approached with considerable circumspection. For the most part, the cases Jogalekar cites represent acts of philanthropy – wealthy individuals funding science either for the sake of science itself or in the interest of curing diseases and solving problems of wide public concern. In discussing the potential fruits of private scientific funding, it is worth making a distinction between the sort of philanthropic funding Jogalekar addresses and profit-seeking investment. To paint one as absolutely good and the other as absolutely bad would be disingenuously simplistic. But the injection of profit accumulation as an additional aim in the process of scientific research is likely to have some distorting effects. Take for instance the NIPCC, a contrarian congregation of climate change denialists lead by Fred Singer and funded by the ultra-conservative Heartland Institute, itself funded by sources like fossil-fuel giant Exxon Mobile and the billionaire Koch Brothers. The NIPCC not only produces questionable science, it produces questionable science that aligns with the broad interests of the fossil-fuel industry.

The essential point relates to  the ultimate goals of funding and can be extended to any situation in which ideological interests intrude on scientific projects. The Templeton Institute doles out around $70 million a year for scientific research, much of it funneled into programs tackling  “big questions”. The problem here is that many of those “big questions” are concerned with finding scientific support for religious hokum. For the most part, such research is probably a waste of time and money – if the universe has been fashioned for a purpose, the architect of that design has taken considerable pains to conceal the evidence his/her/its workings. But more importantly, it also lends credence to the notion that teleological or superstitious notions about the nature of reality have some kind of empirical basis. When it comes to scientific explanation, invocations of supernatural agency or even ambiguous notions of “design” are at best superfluous.

Ultimately , a blanket condemnation of private funding in science is untenable. Clearly, philanthropic investment has lent invaluable support to a range of scientific enterprises. But the converse is also true: enthusiasm for the potential benefits science might accrue through private investment should be tempered by the recognition that those benefits are highly contingent. Wealthy philanthropists with a passion for pure science or a humanitarian urge to address problems like disease and hunger have put their money to good use and a lot of solid scientific programs have benefited as a result. At the same time, it should be recognized that corporate, profit-seeking investment in science can be inimical to the whole process.

It is also worth remembering that public funding of science has lead to a considerable amount of progress. The idea that, because public funding of science is presently poor, we should abandon the enterprise entirely is absolutely unjustified. It’s worth noting that modern government sucks largely because it has been hijacked by private interests. In the affairs of representative government, the influence of wealth has been unequivocally corrupting.

Though often esoteric in nature, quality scientific research is in the public interest. In the late 1960s, shortly after Apollo 11 had landed on the moon, Rhode Island Senator John Pastore asked Fermilab physicist Robert Wilson if the federal government should spend $250 million building a new collider. In particular, Senator Pastore was curious about whether or not the collider would contribute anything to the security of the United States.

Wilson’s answer, was, of course no. The collider had no value in terms of national defense. He explained: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture…It has to do with, are we good painters, good scultpters, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about…It has to nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.”

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