Why scientific research needs both public and private support

March 20, 2014

Technicians installed the $50 million Dark Energy Camera atop a telescope in Chile last year. (Reidar Hahn/Fermilab)

This is a guest post by John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt university professor of political science at Duke University and president of the American Political Science Association.

William Broad recently wrote in the New York Times:

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.

But in fact, philanthropy has long been an important, sometimes even the only, supporter of academic research. What is different is that politics is infecting the government’s support of science, so every source of funding is now viewed with “gratitude and trepidation.” What is needed is a partnership, whereby the federal government supports basic research, private philanthropies support the resulting applications. And this should be true across the board, in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Private philanthropy has long supported scholarly research; in fact they were the original financiers. While tech and information economy billionaires are today’s source of private support, yesterday’s support came from another period of massive wealth creation, the Industrial Revolution and Gilded Age, leading to the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation and so many others. In the beginning of the 20th century, the government did little in the way of support for research in America’s colleges and universities. Only later did they play a supporting role, and only later still, at the dawn of the Cold War, did the federal government emerge as the primary source of support for research and thus dominated priority setting.

The academy took its form familiar today at the beginning of the 20th century, when most disciplines that define the core liberal arts were organized. This division of labor proved almost immediately to align only some of the time with pressing problems. Four years after the creation of my discipline’s organization, the American Political Science Association, for example, private philanthropic support for research was launched:

The Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907, was the nation’s first philanthropic foundation. Its founding mission, to which it adheres a century later, was creating knowledge for “social betterment,” a mission it advanced by funding the young social sciences…. The Foundation’s earliest programs were in service of what was then called the new liberalism, a political-economic order located somewhere between laissez-faire doctrine and socialism.

The Foundation’s first major project was the multi-year and substantial Pittsburgh Survey. This investigation took up the social question by combining ethnographic, documentary (including photography), and survey methods to bring to public attention facts about an immigrant working class that, in the view of the Foundation, demanded policy intervention.

(The above quotation and argument are taken from “Interdisciplinarity: Its Role in a Discipline-Based Academy,” a forthcoming book based on this American Political Science Association report.)

This move, and the many more to come, recognized that research at our nation’s colleges and universities could be harnessed to solve social problems. It recognized that the place to look for solving social problems was the social sciences.  And it recognized that the way to solve those problems was to draw from across the social sciences (and often the humanities and the natural sciences), that is, to look to interdisciplinary teams of scholars. And it wasn’t just Russell Sage, but many of the rest of the newly founded philanthropic foundations that took on an increasing role in this endeavor.  Only later, under President Herbert Hoover, would the federal government enter into a supporting role to the partnership struck between the academy and these foundations.

This partnership has remained critical to the attempt to solve the foundations’ “social problems,” and thus, this vital corner of the private sector continues to play a major role in defining priorities for research.  What has changed has been the role of the government.  The growth in importance of the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities, not to mention the huge array of research support that comes from federal, state, and local governments, have for decades become the first source of “influence and priorities.”  And with the entry of politics, especially of the partisan sort, into the government’s determination of science policy, scientists, social scientists, and humanists look askance at the federal government — with “The result [being] a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.”

A balance of government and foundation influence and priorities would increase gratitude and decrease trepidation.  The foundations will and must continue to play critical roles in solving social concerns and advancing American prospects.  It remains the special role of the federal government to focus first on basic research, the foundation on which future discoveries rest.  Basic research, after all, is like defense, a nearly pure public good that the private sector supplies poorly if at all.  It is the mission of the federal government, therefore, to correct such inevitable market failure.  But, by working together, the government, the foundations, and the universities can achieve much more than they can separately, in both basic and in applied (social) science.

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