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Any Port in a Storm: Public and Private Sector Funding for Science

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A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the profound change that has occurred in the funding of science in the United States. I agree that the science enterprise has changed, and will continue to change, with a much greater opportunity through private philanthropy to support research. Reflecting back on my own experience as a researcher, I have received research funding from private foundations, individuals and government grants from various agencies. I also served as a senior manager in a federal science agency (NOAA) and as an academic administrator. No doubt the changing funding environment is scary, but I think diversifying sources of funding has been a good thing for researchers all over the world.

FY14_Budget_800x329Even without tightening of the US federal science budget across many agencies, the number of researchers seeking support is still increasing and competition is stiff. And let’s face it, no one can match the federal government for sheer process. I don’t mean that pejoratively in this case, but that the guidelines, pre-preposals, reviewing, panel discussion, program officer management and sign-off, while maddening, results in some real finely honed proposals being funded.

But as success rates decline for federal grants, the ability to rely on federal funding to support an ongoing research program becomes a dicey venture. So looking for foundation support, to provide new opportunity, continuity and often a faster response, is essential for many, as it was for me. And while privately funded projects are reviewed and revised and carefully scrutinized, the process often moves faster. There is more willingness, if one hits upon just the right idea that fits the foundation or individual donor’s interests, to be bold.

There is a big difference though. A bold idea to a private donor is not the same as a bold idea to a panel of your peers. As the Times article points out, private philanthropy isn’t in the business of making the pieces of the entire research enterprise fit together. The government is. And maintaining long-term programs, such as fundamental environmental measurement, for decades or more isn’t likely to capture private interest.

The federal science enterprise is what so much other work is built upon, though—the fundamental data sets, the research areas, student support, equipment support, federal laboratories and scientists that are often at the top of their fields. These are not replaceable by private philanthropy, in much the same way that industry-based research and development is not replaceable by universities nor federal labs.

We tried a brief and admittedly badly designed experiment at stopping federal science funding this past fall, with the US government shutdown. Here at UCS we asked members of our science network what the consequences were. It wasn’t a pretty picture. In fact it was a mess. The government shutdown didn’t just affect federal scientists, it affected science. State and private labs, as well as other countries, were left without access to data, to research samples, facilities, experiments as well as federal colleagues.

It is not as if private philanthropy could have, or would have wanted to take up the slack if the shutdown went on longer. But in fact, budget cutbacks are making parts of it permanent.

From the federal agency perspective, particularly an agency like NOAA that is engaged in both science and management, the loss of the ability to fund mission-related science is  a heavy blow. How could the agency pursue new knowledge that is essential for its mission? Relying on private funding can’t be the answer. Not only would the agency not have any ability to shape the research, but there is no guarantee that private sources would be interested in pursuing questions that might be crucial to agency mission operations, but aren’t of immediate interest to a foundation’s mission.

We can’t tolerate having to make a choice between privately funded research and government funded research. We need both. Of course we need more science in an increasingly complex world. But more than that, we need both types of research. One should not be at the expense of the other.

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , ,

About the author: Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy. He leads UCS's efforts to advance the essential role that science, evidence-based decision making, and constructive debate play in American policy making. See Andrew's full bio.

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  • http://raminskibba.net Ramin Skibba

    Thanks for the article. You make a good point that in light of budget cuts and declining success rates for federal grants, we probably need private funding for science as well. (I’ve usually proposed to NASA and NSF myself but I’ve recently submitted a proposal to a private foundation as well.) I admit that I worry though that the growth of private funding could encourage some people in Congress, especially fiscal conservatives, to cut science budgets further, and that it could undermine the grant review process that federal agencies already have in place.

  • http:/arctanh.wordpress.com Ellie Kesselman

    Thank G-d for you, Andrew Rosenberg! I’m so happy to see that UCS got someone from the NOAA like yourself, who realizes the importance of the NOAA’s good works. I worry about NOAA funding, when I notice how annual studies aren’t being updated any longer, and many projects that are described as ongoing have been dormant since 2008 or 2010.

    Private funding usually comes with strings attached, even when intentions are good. Philanthropy is great, but expecting to turn to it as a primary financial resource indicates a gross wealth imbalance. It shouldn’t even be possible in a healthy economy. Similarly, private contractors tend to be more expensive on an aggregate, long-term basis.

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