William Broad reports in the New York Timesthat budget cuts in federal science programs have created a crisis in research. Billionaires have stepped into the gap to fund projects that they deem important.
This disturbs the scientific establishment,. Steven Edwards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science worries that “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.”
Broad notes that the new sponsors of science “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.” But spokesman for the “scientific establishment” are concerned that this will move funding into trendy fields like environmental science and space exploration and away from basic physics and chemistry, which aren’t sexy enough.
The National Academy of Sciences wants to make sure private science is controlled, and “has repeatedly urged the government to step up its monitoring of the uncharted billions.”
This is a move back to the future: Early science was largely funded by wealthy patrons. The establishment is right about the effects; privatized science will become more free-wheeling and unregulated, mistakes will be made. There are risks, but it may break open questions that are now considered closed.