We may be entering a new age of court sponsorship similar to Renaissance Europe when landed nobility adopted painters, sculptors, playwrights, choreographers and writers, supporting their efforts and in return reaping some of the glory of creation. But in this new age, it’s not aristocrats by birth who provide the support but the aristocrats of money such as Larry Elison, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Gordon Moore, union-hating liberal Michael Bloomberg and the nefarious David Koch. And the support is going not to the arts, but to research scientists.
The New York Times article that details the enormous amounts given by these and other billionaires to support scientific research zeroes in on the big problem of the ultra-wealthy selecting research topics: they decide what’s important and not scientists or the government, which represents all of us. Traditionally, peer-review groups at campuses and research facilities or government agencies decided what research deserved funding. When the government did it, it mostly let scientists make the decisions and awarded research on merit and importance and not politics, except partially during the Bush II faith-based Administration. It is true that industry has often had an outsized say in setting scientific policy; for example, when Truman decided to implement the results of a white paper advocating commercialization of nuclear power and denied funding for recommendations in a white paper on solar energy. But having influence is not quite the same thing as making the decision without any checks or balances.
Now government support for scientific research is down, as Congress would prefer to keep taxes on the wealthy at historic lows over investing in our future. The billionaires are stepping into the breach, but only in the areas that they care about.
As might be expected, most of the billionaires giving large dollars for science research donate to fight a disease with which they are familiar. David Koch and Michael Milkin have both had prostate cancer. Google’s Sergey Brin’s mother had Parkinson’s. American oil oligarch Harold Hamm had diabetes. Leon Black’s wife had melanoma. Eli Broad’s son has Crohn’s disease.
This privatization of America’s science research policy is as bad for the country as the privatization of prisons, education and war-fighting have been, but the privatization of actual decisions of who gets how much is even worse. We would be much better off having scientific groups decide on funding for specific projects than non-scientists with lots of money.
In the past, higher taxes on the wealthy helped to finance the American science that cured polio and other diseases, put men on the moon, earth-quaked buildings and computerized the world. The growing inequality of wealth—the rich getting richer and everyone else falling behind—gives the wealthy an unfair say in the personal lives and futures of everyone. Their control extends beyond the ability to buy more goods and services, as they buy more political influence, more campaign ads and even more scientists. Who is is to say whether the billionaires will share breakthroughs with the rest of the world—perhaps they will want to make money on the new discoveries. We see what happens when private entities own drug discoveries—some drugs are a thousand dollars a pill, while no American company is willing to make flu vaccines because the profit margin isn’t great enough. Privatization of science will likely lead to similar inequities.
I also wonder if the billionaires will employ their standard business practices in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Will David Koch suppress any research into food allergies that link them to global warming or the burning of hydrocarbons? Will Jeff Bezos insist on introducing Amazon’s employee-unfriendly wage and workplace practices into the science organizations he supports? Will scientists working for Michael Milkin be more likely than average to falsify data?
A much better approach would be to raise income taxes on high incomes, and end the special tax rate for capital gains tax and the carried interest exemption. In other words, raise taxes on the wealthy and use part of that money to increase public support of scientific research.