US Billionaires making a modern model of Renaissance Science Patronage

Last year, the USA started the Brain Initiative. It is a $100 million initiative to probe the mysteries of the human brain.

The government initiative grew out of richly financed private research: A decade before, Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, had set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated $500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, had then established brain institutes at Yale, Columbia and the University of California. Scientists from those philanthropies, in turn, had helped devise the Obama administration’s plan.

“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”

They have mounted a private war on disease, with new protocols that break down walls between academia and industry to turn basic discoveries into effective treatments. They have rekindled traditions of scientific exploration by financing hunts for dinosaur bones and giant sea creatures. They are even beginning to challenge Washington in the costly game of big science, with innovative ships, undersea craft and giant telescopes — as well as the first private mission to deep space.

Most of the important astronomers and natural philosophers (as well as artists) in the 16th and 17th centuries depended on the patronage of powerful religious or political figures to fund their work. Patronage networks extended all the way from Emperors and Popes to regional nobles to artisans to peasants; even university positions were based to some extent on patronage. Scholarly careers in this period were driven by patronage, often starting in undistinguished universities or local schools or courts, and traveling closer or farther from centers of power as their fortunes rose and fell.

Patronage, and the desire for more, also shaped the work and publications of scientists.

The modern donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider.

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