The growing influence of billionnaires on research priorities in the USA

Photo ©: Jim West/Science Photo Library. Light therapy being used to treat the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in a cancer patient, during a trial at Birmingham Hospital in 2011 run by the University of Alabama. This therapy was developed from experiments carried out at the International Space Station.

What do British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner and Facebook Founder Marc Zuckerberg have in common? The answer is that all three are on the board of directors of Breakthrough Starshot, an ambitious project announced in April this year to send a fleet of robots the size of a mobile phone to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, in the next 20 years. The project is being managed by Pete Worden, a former director of the Ames Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Milner estimates that the journey to Alpha Centauri would take 20 years – and billions of dollars to fund. He is one of a new generation of philanthropists who are making ‘a major impact on research priorities’ in the USA, according to the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, released last November. Be they motivated by profit or philanthropy, billionaires are exerting a growing influence on research and development (R&D) in the USA.

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