Credit: Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times
Historically, disease research has been particularly prone to unequal attention along racial and economic lines. A look at major initiatives suggests that the philanthropists’ war on disease risks widening that gap, as a number of the campaigns, driven by personal adversity, target illnesses that predominantly afflict white people — like cystic fibrosis, melanoma and ovarian cancer.
There are the skeptics. Then there are the former skeptics, people like Martin A. Apple, a biochemist and former head of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
Initially, Dr. Apple said, he, too, saw the donors as superrich dabblers. Now he believes that they are helping accelerate the overall pace of science. What changed his mind, he said, was watching them persevere, year after year, in pursuit of highly ambitious goals.
“They target polio and go after it until it’s done — no one else can do that,” he said, referring to the global drive to eradicate the disease. “In effect, they have the power to lead where the market and the political will are insufficient.”
A New Template
When Mr. Ellison, chief executive of the Oracle Corporation, heard a Nobel laureate biologist give a talk at Stanford about artificial intelligence, he was mesmerized. It was the early 1990s, and the idea of applying fast computers to genetic riddles was new. “I had never experienced anything like it,” Mr. Ellison recalled.
Eric E. Schmidt
FORTUNE: $9.3 billion
Wendy & Eric Schmidt have given more than $100 million to the Schmidt Ocean Institute. At no cost, the institute lets scientists use its research vessel, Falkor, to explore deep mysteries around the globe, including undersea volcanoes and unfamiliar forms of life.
He invited the scientist, Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller University, to visit him at his California estate. The visit went so well that Mr. Ellison handed the scientist a key to the house and asked him to think of it as his second home. Dr. Lederberg took him up on the offer, and over many dinners in what he would call “the most gorgeous setting in the world” — complete with Japanese teahouse, strolling gardens and ponds of ornamental fish — the men discussed many things, from Mr. Ellison’s early interest in molecular biology to the idea that great wealth can do great good.
In 1997, the friendship gave birth to the Ellison Medical Foundation. Hundreds of biologists have benefited from its patronage, and three have won Nobel Prizes. So far, Mr. Ellison, listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth-richest man, has donated about half a billion dollars to science.
It’s not that Mr. Ellison is the biggest or most visible of the philanthropists. (That distinction probably belongs to Bill Gates, who has donated roughly $10 billion for global public health.) But his work is very much a template for the new private science.
In the traditional world of government-sponsored research, at agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, panels of experts pore over grant applications to decide which ones get financed, weighing such factors as intellectual merit and social value. At times, groups of distinguished experts weigh in on how to advance whole fields, recommending, for instance, the construction of large instruments and laboratories costing billions of dollars.
For Wendy Schmidt, the inspiration came in 2009, from a coral reef in the Grenadine islands of the Caribbean. It was her first scuba dive, and it opened her eyes to the riot of nature.
“We want to rapidly advance scientific research, to speed it up,” Mrs. Schmidt said in an interview.
The philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes. George P. Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about $360 million to fields like particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy — including $35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile.
Eli Broad, who earned his money in housing and insurance, donated $700 million for a venture between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore the genetic basis of disease. Gordon Moore of Intel has spent $850 million on research in physics, biology, the environment and astronomy. The investor Ronald O. Perelman, among other donations, gave more than $30 million to study women’s cancers — money that led to Herceptin, a breakthrough drug for certain kinds of breast cancer. Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft, has spent heavily on uncovering fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, has lent his mega-yacht to hunts for the elusive giant squid.
Advancement Resources of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did its first workshop in 2002 and has now conducted hundreds across the country, mostly to coach scientists and medical institutions in what it calls the art of donor development. “We help make their work accessible to people who do not have scientific backgrounds but do understand money,” said its founder, Joe K. Golding.
FORTUNE: $5 billion
Has focused his giving on physics, biology, botany, geology, ocean science, environment, forestry and conservation. Donated $200 million for the Thirty Meter Telescope, right, to be built on a mountaintop in Hawaii.
Medical institutions are even training their own scientists and doctors in the art of soliciting money from grateful — and wealthy — patients. And Nature ran a lengthy article giving tips on how to “sell science” and “woo philanthropists.” They included practicing an “elevator pitch” — a digest of research so compelling that it would seize a potential donor’s attention in the time between floors.
In November 2012, the White House issued a thick and portentous update on the health of the nation’s research complex. Produced by Mr. Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, it warned of American declines, emphasized the rise of scientific rivals abroad and called for bold policy interventions.
“Without adequate support for such research,” the experts wrote in their cover letter, “the United States risks losing its leadership in invention and discovery.”
That bipartisan consensus eroded with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections and the budget battles that followed. Spending on basic research has fallen by roughly a quarter, to $30 billion last year, one of the sharpest declines ever.
The cutbacks translate into layoffs: A group of scientific societies recently surveyed 3,700 scientists and technical managers and reported that 55 percent knew of colleagues who had lost jobs or expected to lose them soon.
In an interview, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis S. Collins, called 2013 one of his agency’s darkest years ever, with fewer grants awarded and with jobs and programs cut. In decades past, research financed by the institutes won more than 100 Nobel Prizes. The cutbacks, Dr. Collins said, were “profoundly discouraging.”
“It’s always been a major worry,” said Robert W. Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, which has committed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to science and is part of the private effort to increase financing for basic research. “Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can’t say that loud enough.”
FIELD: Hedge funds
FORTUNE: $12.5 billion
Has given $1.1 billion for math and science, including $375 million for autism research. Also raised $13 million to save the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, left. It is on Long Island and is 2.4 miles around.
Representative Lamar Smith would beg to disagree. Mr. Smith, a 14-term Republican from Texas, helped found the House Tea Party Caucus and, after the Tea Party ferment swept the Republicans to power in the House, became chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Last year, after a meteor exploded over Russia and injured more than 1,200 people, Mr. Smith declared that new sensors in space were “critical to our future.” Then he held a hearing to showcase a satellite-borne telescope meant to scan the solar system for speeding rocks that could endanger the planet. Money for the venture comes from leaders of eBay, Google and Facebook, as well as anonymous private donors.
“We must better recognize what the private sector can do to aid our efforts to protect the world,” Mr. Smith said.
In decades past, that job would have belonged to NASA. But at the hearing, the project’s head, Edward T. Lu, a former astronaut and Google executive, testified that the spacecraft’s cost — $450 million — was about half what the government would have spent.
Committee members enthusiastically suggested that the private endeavor pointed the way toward a new era of lower federal spending.
The N.I.H. budget alone runs to about $30 billion — half for basic research. At least for now, said Dr. Press, the board chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, private giving is “still a drop in the bucket.”
For all that, the government knows very little about how much philanthropic money is flowing into science, or how it is being spent.
Science analysts say that knowledge is vitally important: Without it, the government cannot get a comprehensive picture and strive for a smart balance in the nation’s overall science plans.