Despite it being the open season for rich people-bashing, there is general consensus that money (and the earth’s angular momentum) still makes the world go round. And while money remains a dirty word in academic circles, scientific innovation costs big money. In spite of science being charged with the task of meeting our biggest environment challenges like energy security and climate change, very few are aware of who controls the puppet strings. There is a hazy awareness that taxpayers pay for science and the boffins in government determine scientific priorities with input from leading scientists. However, most people are unaware of how science gets funded and who decides scientific priorities at the global level. Unlike science itself which is very decentralized, science funding is far more centralized with different groups pooling in money to address globally important scientific challenges. Enter the dragon with three main players :

1. ICSU (The International Council for Science) : Despite rhyming with igloo, ICSU is a powerful body that decides what the scientific priorities and is a sort of United Nations of Science. Around 120 national scientific bodies are members of ICSU and drive the direction of science globally.

2. Belmont Forum : This is an influential group of funding agencies that fork out the cash for most of the global environment change research.

3. Philanthropists : Rich people with crazy ideas that might either revolutionize science or end up as the world’s most expensive school science projects.

Seen as relics of the past when rich patrons funded pet projects, wealthy scientific philanthropists are making a comeback.

With science budgets being tightened and only priority research being funded, the role of philanthropists in pushing the boundaries of science has gained traction. These rich amateurs are what scientists want to be reborn as. Flush with cash, no-strings attached, no need to follow orders from above, no reports or proposals to write or undergraduates to teach. Besides adding a Victorian-era glamour to science, they bring with them skills from the corporate, industrial, tech world that help streamline big science projects and approach problems from a different angle. Good examples of the breed are the X- prize, Solar Impulse and Virgin Galactic. They also pour money into neglected or stigmatised scientific areas that might not otherwise get funding.

Private philanthropy has its drawbacks. It can be self-serving and lead to useless vanity projects that make good cocktail conversation but contribute very little to science. It has also been used to discredit science or pursue discredited science in the past. It may lack a long-term perspective and money may only be available when financial markets are strong.

But for wealthy philanthropists, science could offer a better return on investment than almost anything else out there – including a shot at immortality.

Advertisements