More scientific and medical research in the United States is being funded by private foundations and wealthy individuals than ever before. Many of these sources and the areas of medicine they are funding are familiar to the American public, and include such big names as Bill Gates (vaccinations, tuberculosis, polio, malaria), Ronald Perelman (infertility, Parkinson’s), and David Koch (prostate cancer). In fact, MIT professor Fiona Murray reported in a 2012 article for the National Bureau of Economic Research that science philanthropy contributes more than $4 billion annually to operations, endowments, and buildings devoted to university-based medical, engineering, and scientific research. At the same time, funding from the U.S. government for basic research has been falling since 2010. In an interview with the New York Times for a recent article describing this phenomenon, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis S. Collins, called 2013 “one of the darkest years ever” for the NIH, with fewer grants awarded and with jobs and programs cut.
Scientific research that advances our knowledge of medicine and leads to the discovery of effective cures and treatments that save lives is important and valuable—so does it matter who funds the research? It just might.
Science philanthropists tend to fund research based on personal interest or familial experience with a particular disease. One concern with privatizing research is the widening of already existing racial disparities in healthcare and disease research, with diseases that affect white populations receiving more funding. Consider, for example, cystic fibrosis, melanoma, and ovarian cancer—all diseases that, according to the NYT article, benefited from rich, white philanthropists who had personal reasons to choose these particular diseases. Not surprisingly, of the 20 philanthropists highlighted, only one (Patrick Soon-Shiong) was not white (and only two were women).
Another concern is that private philanthropists tend to support already well-funded fields and disproportionately give to the same top universities, thus potentially marginalizing smaller institutions and neglecting less well-funded areas of research. While private funding could, in an ideal world, “fill in the gaps” of research not covered by government funding, this has not been the case. Furthermore, Dr. Murray states that “the lack of allocative efficiency and coordination among patrons makes comprehensive funding strategies impossible, leaving researchers at the whims of particular individuals.”
So is science philanthropy a problem? Certainly not. With shrinking government funding, the dollars for medical research have to come from somewhere. Nevertheless, when evaluating study results, it is important to be aware of the funding sources and any potential conflicts of interest and biases of the stakeholders involved in the research. Even the best research can be fatally flawed if the results are reported with bias or skewed to support a particular viewpoint.