For decades, scientists have been rattled by the erosion of public funding for their research. In 1965, the federal government financed more than 60 percent of research and development in the United States. “By 2006, the balance had flipped,” wrote Jennifer Washburn a decade ago, in a feature for Discover, “with 65 percent of R&D in this country being funded by private interests.”
This can’t be all bad, can it? Given the culture of competition in Silicon Valley, where world-changing ideas attract billions upon billions of dollars from eager investors, and where many of the brightest minds congregate, we may well be entering a golden era of private funding for science and medicine.
Along with the business side of science, the world’s tech leaders have built a robust philanthropic network for research advancement. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major force in the prevention of infectious diseases, for example. Last year, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched his own foundation—with his wife, Priscilla Chan, who is a pediatrician—aiming to help “cure, prevent or manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime.” Between those two initiatives alone, billions of dollars will be funneled to a variety of crucial research efforts in the next decade.
But that amount still doesn’t approach $26 billion in NIH research grants that are doled out to scientists every year. For about a decade, stagnant funding at the NIH was considered a serious impediment to scientific progress. Now, scientists say they are facing something much worse.
I asked more than a dozen scientists—across a wide range of disciplines, with affiliations to private schools, public schools, and private foundations—and their concern about the proposed budget was resounding. The consequences of such a dramatic reduction in public spending on science and medicine would be deadly, they told me. More than one person said that losing public funding on this scale would dramatically lower the country’s global scientific standing. One doctor said he believed Trump’s proposal, if passed, would set off a lost generation in American science.
“Where do I start?” said Hana El-Samad, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and an investigator in the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub program, one of the prestigious new privately funded science initiatives in Silicon Valley. In her research, El-Samad analyzes biological feedback loops, studying how they work so that she can predict their failure in diseases.
“First, we most certainly lose diversity in science—ranging from diversity of topics researched to diversity of people doing the research,” she told me. “Since we don’t know where real future progress will come from, and since history tells us that it can and almost certainly will come from anywhere—both scientifically and geographically—public funding that precisely diversifies our nation’s portfolio is crucial.”