Looking back only to the U.S. federal government since World War II and particularly the Cold War, private science can seem like a recent interloper. However, philanthropists have long funded American science. Most glaringly, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr. in the early 20th century donated significant amounts of money to establish two permanent science research centers in Washington D.C.: the Carnegie Institution and the National Research Council.
To show that private science has roots in the first gilded age, though, is not to dismiss Americans’ perceptions that there is something new in the way science is now being funded. Unlike their early-20th-century predecessors, for example, philanthropists today are targeting particular fields themselves and bypassing traditional intermediaries such as trustees, federal actors, and research experts. On the one hand, these intermediaries can be perceived as an unnecessary and time-consuming bureaucratic hurdle that not only stands in the way of donors’ passionate inspirations, but also stalls innovation and avoids risk-taking. On the other hand, their presence can facilitate informed decision-making and serve as a democratizing element, ensuring that several groups of Americans besides the private-sector elite have a say in the course and development of American science.
Some Americans might feel nostalgic about a Cold War era of federal funding for American science. However, rather than comparing absolutes of federal versus private funding, our time might be better spent comparing these two models of private science; and in the process, molding the type of privately-funded research program that we would like to see develop in the United States. After all, private science seems here to stay.
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In November of 1901, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie approached U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt with the idea for a science center in the nation’s capital. The previous year, Carnegie had met with former Cornell president and then U.S. ambassador to Germany, Andrew White, and the two had discussed plans for a university in Washington D.C. By the end of their conversations, however, White and Carnegie had arrived at the idea for an independent research organization without students or permanent faculty.
In January, Carnegie declared that his purpose was “[t]o found in the city of Washington an institution which, with the cooperation of institutions now or hereafter established, there or elsewhere, shall in the broadest and most liberal manner encourage investigation, research and discovery—show the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind, provide such buildings, laboratories, books and apparatus as may be needed, and afford instruction of an advanced character to students properly qualified to profit thereby.” He commissioned the organization with the general task of improving knowledge in the sciences; the following year in 1903, Congress incorporated the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Its board consisted of five ex officio members such as the U.S. president and the speaker of the House and 22 other leading American policymakers. It also established advisory committees in various fields such as anthropology, astronomy, bibliography, botany, chemistry, economics, engineering, geography, geophysics, geology, history, mathematics, meteorology, paleontology, physics, physiology, psychology, and zoology.