16.06.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

The growing influence of billionaires 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 (1) 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.

What are the implications of this trend for federal research priorities? ‘Critics suggest that this influence is skewing research activities towards the narrow interests of wealthy patrons and the elite universities where most of these billionaires received their education,’ observes the report. ‘Some projects do, indeed, focus explicitly on the personal interests of their patrons. Eric and Wendy Schmidt founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute after an inspiring diving trip in the Caribbean, for instance, and Lawrence Ellison founded the Ellison Medical Foundation after a series of salons held at his home that had been led by Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg.’

However, the report also observes that ‘the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, perhaps the most high-profile philanthropic research organization of all, has consistently defied that trend by instead focusing on the diseases that most affect the world’s poor.’

Privately funded groups are helping the federal government to make savings

‘Some privately funded groups have stepped in when political will is weak,’ analyses the report. ‘For example, executives from eBay, Google and Facebook are funding the development of a space-based telescope to search for asteroids and meteors that threaten to strike Earth for far less money than a similar project would require at NASA’.

‘SpaceX, the private venture of Elon Musk, has achieved similar savings for the federal government by acting as a contractor. SpaceX has received more than US$ 5.5 billion in federal contracts from the US Air Force and NASA. It received a US$ 20 million subsidy from the State of Texas to build a launching facility to foster the state’s economic development.’

Within SpaceX's partnership with NASA, 'its Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to fly cargo to and from the International Space Station in 2012’, recalls the report. As yet, SpaceX does not have human flight capabilities, so cannot transport astronauts to the research station.

NASA’s share of the federal research budget for agencies has dropped over the past 20 years. In 2014, NASA's research budget amounted to US$ 11.5 billion (in constant dollars), according to the UNESCO Science Report, compared to US$ 13.8 billion in 1994. Between 2005 and 2014, this budget shrank by 9%. The focus of NASA has consequently shifted away from human spaceflight, as part of a cost-cutting drive. ‘In a reflection of this trend, the showpiece space shuttle programme was retired in 2011 and its successor cancelled. US astronauts now rely on Russian-operated Soyouz rockets to transport them to and from the International Space Station.’

Most federal budgets have stagnated in recent years

Most federal research budgets have remained flat or declined in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past five years, as part of the congressional austerity drive to trim US$ 4 trillion from the federal budget and thereby reduce the deficit. After a sharp deterioration in 2008 at the height of the subprime crisis, ‘the combined federal and state fiscal deficit should improve to 4.2% of GDP in 2015, thanks to increasingly robust economic growth,’ observes the report, ‘even though it will remain one of the highest among G7 countries. The federal budget deficit (2.7% of GDP) will make up just under two-thirds of the total deficit, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office. This is a big improvement on the situation in 2009, when the federal deficit peaked at 9.8% of GDP.’

Among the 11 agencies that conduct the majority of federally funded R&D, most have seen flat R&D budgets over the past five years, the Department of Defense even experiencing a steep decline. Federal research funding has grown at an unpredictable rate for many scientific disciplines, a trend which is ultimately disruptive to training and research.

In the life sciences, federal research funding has failed to keep pace with inflation in recent years. The UNESCO Science Report cites a 2015 paper published in Science Translational Medicine by deans of US medical schools which noted that ‘support for the research ecosystem must be predictable and sustainable both for institutions and individual investigators’. Levine et al. pointed out that, 'without greater spending, biomedical research would contract, the ability to address patient health would recede and the biomedical field would make a smaller contribution to the national economy.’

Philanthropic priorities can also inspire federal priorities

Whereas, in the case of SpaceX, federal priorities have been taken up by billionaires, things have sometimes happened the other way round. ‘Before President Obama announced his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN),’ observes the report, ‘Paul G. Allen and Fred Kavli had established privately funded brain institutes in Seattle in the State of Washington and at the three Universities of Yale, Columbia and California, with scientists at those institutes helping to develop the federal agenda.’

The BRAIN Initiative is one of the ‘grand challenges’ announced by the president in April 2013. The goal of this project is to leverage genetic, optical and imaging technologies to map individual neurons and complex circuits in the brain, eventually leading to a more complete understanding of this organ’s structure and function.

The ‘grand challenges’ were introduced to help catalyse breakthroughs in priority areas, by combining the efforts of public, private and philanthropic partners. They are one element of the Obama administration’s Strategy for American Innovation (2009), which emphasizes innovation-based economic growth as a way of raising income levels, creating better-quality jobs and improving quality of life.

So far, the BRAIN Initiative has obtained commitments of over US$ 300 million in resources from federal agencies (National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, National Science Foundation, etc.), industry (National Photonics Initiative, General Electric, Google, GlaxoSmithKline, etc.) and philanthropy (foundations and universities).

The first phase of BRAIN is focusing on the development of tools. ‘The National Institutes of Health have created 58 awards totalling US$ 46 million. For its part, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has focused on tools to create electrical interfaces with the nervous system to treat motor damage. Industrial partners are developing improved solutions that the project will require in terms of imaging, storage and analysis’. Meanwhile, ‘universities across the country have committed to aligning their neuroscience centres and core equipment with the objectives of the BRAIN Initiative.’

Despite the current austerity drive, the executive’s priorities have been taken forward, largely thanks to collaborative projects involving the government, industrial and non-profit sectors like the BRAIN Initiative. Other examples of this collaborative model under the Obama administration are the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership and the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, which received a US$ 140 billion pledge from its industrial partners last year to reduce their carbon footprint.

(1) Dennis Overbye (2016) Reaching for the stars, across 4.37 light-years. New York Times, 12 April.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, see the chapter on the USA

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