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

April 4, 2014 | 11:59 am
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

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.