A world where all research is driven by private interests

private interests fuel researchWe’ve made no attempt to hide our concern about declining public funding for research. Articles we’ve highlighted on this topic in the past have centered on the benefits and past breakthroughs of publicly funded research.  This article and the accompanying video from the NY Times goes one step further and looks at the darker side of what is happening as the nation’s research goals are increasingly determined by private interests and billionaires and not by public goals. (Hint: some important questions like what explains and can address the gap in life spans between black and white Americans are not on that list.) Government funding of basic research continues to decline, and it’s important that we communicate what this trend could mean. Here’s an excerpt from the Times’ piece:

American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.

“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of 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.”

On a related note, we were troubled to come across this article from The Nation that discusses the recent firings of two professors at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Despite heeding the call to be great teachers and to contribute to the public debates of our times, these professors were let go for failing to generate enough private grant funding. Here’s an excerpt:

Like many schools of public health, Mailman operates on a “soft money” model, which means that professors are expected to fund much of their salaries through grants. (Many professors there, including Vance and Hopper, work without tenure.) Recently, the amount expected has increased—from somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of their salaries to as much as 80 percent—and professors say that it’s become a hard rule, with less room for the cross-subsidization of those who devote themselves to teaching or whose research isn’t attractive to outside funders. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health, the primary source of grant money, has seen its budget slashed. These days, only 17 percent of grant applications are successful—a record low.

The result is an increasing focus on the bottom line over a broad engagement with social issues. “One of the costs of this push for federal funding is going to be a depoliticization of the scholarship at Mailman,” says a professor there who asked to remain anonymous for fear of administration reprisals. “You can’t do great public health without engaging with politics.”

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