One of the distinguishing features of the modern school reform movement is the extent to which super-wealthy private philanthropists are leading the drive to privatize the public education system. Some of them believe the public system is inefficient, while others simply don’t believe in the public sector — but whatever the motive, the vast amounts of private money that the wealthy have poured into reform initiatives that they favor have driven the public agenda. But now it turns out that it isn’t just public education that billionaires are privatizing. They are doing it with science, too.
Some of the same names that are behind education reform are also involved in the privatization movement of science, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the Koch brothers, according to this story in The New York Times.
Some see this as a public good, saying that there isn’t enough public investment in science and health issues to make the progress that modern society needs. They cite Gates’s effort to eradicate polio on the planet as one of those praise-worthy projects.
But others worry that science research should not be subject to the likes and dislikes of the wealthy or that private philanthropists should be the people who, by leveraging their own fortunes, set the public agenda. Critics also worry that many private funders of science are not interested in the kind of basic research that leads to fundamental breakthroughs but, rather, “a jumble of popular, feel-good fields like environmental studies and space exploration.” There is also concern that the wealthy can press their personal political agendas by funding specific scientific programs.
The Times story says in part:
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.”
Concerns about private philanthropy in science mirror those expressed for years by education activists, including historian Diane Ravitch, who had a chapter in her 2010 book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” a chapter called “The Billionaire Boys Club,” which describes what she calls “the ideological convergence” of the three foundations that spend the most money in K-12 education: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.
She wrote in this blog post that The Walton Foundation has long been known as staunchly conservative, a steadfast funder of school choice, of vouchers and charters. Walton, Gates, and Broad now fund many of the same programs, including Teach For America, and the Gates foundation funds ultra-conservative advocates of charters and vouchers, such as Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Since the book came out, many more billionaires — and multi-millionaires — many of them Wall Street hedge fund managers, some of them women — have jumped into this arena as well.
Philanthropy is, of course, important in many spheres — but the bottom line is that private individuals shouldn’t be leading drives to privatize sectors that are public responsibilities. The Times story quotes Robert W. Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, which is part of an initiative to boost funding for basic research, as saying:
“Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can’t say that loud enough.”