Privatizing American Science

As government funding for research shrinks, the nation’s research agenda is increasing shaped by billionaire entrepreneurs willing to invest large sums in science–especially science that reflects their personal interests.

That’s the conclusion of a recent New York Times story investigating the the growing “privatization” of science funding. Increasingly, researchers are depending on the deep pockets of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Eric E. Schmidt, and Oracle’s Lawrence Ellison for work that, in the past, was conducted by government labs and or with federal dollars.

“This is philanthropy in the age of the new economy — financed with its outsize riches, practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed,” summarized writer William Broad. “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 simply will not consider.”

Some applaud the willingness of the wealthy to finance cutting edge research, but critics worry that money only goes to “sexy” issues (like space exploration) and supports a narrow range of social concerns (such as environmental concerns), while ignoring “boring” fields like physics and most basic research.

Equally worrisome is the preference for supporting work conducted by the largest and most prestigious universities at the expense of smaller institutions. This can undermine “efforts to foster a greater diversity of opportunity — geographic, economic, racial — among the nation’s scientific investigators.”

What does this mean for tribal colleges? Does it represent an opportunity for tribal and native-serving colleges–institutions that might engage the interest of socially-aware billionaire-philanthropists? Or will Native Americans be among the losers as research becomes a project of the wealthy and not a matter of the public good?

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