Billionaires are rushing into biotech. Inequality is following them into science

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Billionaires are rushing into biotech. Inequality is following them into science

'Free-market philanthropy' raises yet more questions about the future of American public research

You exit a cramped, hazy subway car with a throng of professionals. As you emerge blinking into Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, the crowd descends on a nest of pharmaceutical offices huddled around the Charles River, overlooking downtown Boston. MIT, Harvard, bougie cafes and hotels, trendy co-working spaces filled with startups, and giants like Google are dispersed throughout the biotech colosseum. Last but not least, there are the Institutes – the Ragon, the Koch, the McGovern, the Picower, the Whitehead, and the Broad – all named after billionaire donors seeding a stake as a powerhouse in their respective fields. And more is on the way. The Gates Foundation is building a nonprofit research institute and China is moving to secure space in the area.

This is why biotechnology and life sciences are exceptionally strong in Boston. Almost everyone in biotech works in Boston, or works with somebody who does. It’s why they continue to bring new students from all over – and why I came here. The area is in a cycle of shared dominance with other epicenters like San Francisco, Research Triangle in North Carolina, the metropolitan New York area, and DC. But these zones represent a growing erosion of geographical diversity in America’s higher education system. These areas are raking in thousands of awards, worth billions, and are reinforced with billions of venture capital funding and huge amounts of new lab space. Even between two major centers, Boston and DC, Boston acquires 151 percent more funding from the National Institutes of Health, 58 percent more patents, and 2,010 percent more venture capital investment. These are the gaps just at the top of the pyramid.

Biotechopolis

Lance Anderson / Unsplash

Coming from a public research university in a smaller city, Kendall Square was a stark change. I remember giving tours at my undergraduate university to prospective students, mentioning our benefactor, who donated eight figures to rename and boost our engineering school facilities. As I took the tour group into our workshops, I mentioned the innovation competitions on campus offering thousands of dollars for new, transformative ideas. Now, I work in a single building worth more than a third of my alma mater’s endowment, and work for an innovation program on campus that offers, collectively, millions every year for hundreds of teams.

It’s a remarkable environment, a place that undoubtedly everyone is thankful to be a part of. But it’s hard to ignore what makes this possible. Universities like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT are supported by progressive state governments, diverse student groups, and endowments totaling nearly $75 billion. These private universities do not experience the same stresses currently affecting public research universities, particularly in the Midwest. These schools have to lobby state governments to secure funding, like my alma mater did last fall, and manage state politics. Successful professors often depart to other universities, especially when a large pay gap exists, sometimes leaving undergraduates without their adviser. Per-student spending has dramatically fallen in states like Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. And NIH funding underlines these trends. Half of all NIH funding is awarded to only 10 percent of states and 2 percent of funded organizations. These imbalances repeat through all the ways technology is commercialized: 20 percent of universities contribute to 60 percent of startups.

Uber but for trees

Viv Lynch / Flickr

Beyond the attraction of top faculty and enormous endowments stand the donors, ready with hundreds of millions of dollars for the pursuit of groundbreaking advances in brain science, astrophysics, artificial intelligence, coral reefs, and other interests. If top researchers and universities didn’t collect enough government money, private donors make up the rest, accounting for 30 percent of all research money at top universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. And all money is not equal. Private donors offer independence and inspiration, free of government requirements and filled with curiosity and persistence to solve personal ambitions and altruistic pursuits.

As if this weren't enough, universities and nonprofits increasingly claim patents on research generated from federally funded projects. The debate surrounding the patents of the controversial gene editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9, is a perfect example: just one company with patent licenses has garnered millions in funding and deals worth hundreds of millions. University patents and licenses are of particular interest to these donors. Take the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco for example, where it has exclusive rights to commercialize research, regardless of whether it was funded by American taxpayers or not. The power to affect research, for better or worse, by “free-market philanthropy” raises yet more questions about the shifting future of American public research.

But on the flip-side, all these patents, venture capital, and startups mean that research, often dense and walled off in academia, is being translated to the public. It means that work performed in the lab – the new diagnostics, medicines, agricultural tools, biomanufacturing, sustainable products, ways to produce meat – will affect someone outside the lab, directly. This is exactly what university research is for.

This is the inherent beauty about the spirit of public research. The collective pursuit of knowledge for the benefit of the greater good, paid for by the greater whole. While I believe this continues to be largely true, many – including Michael Eisen, the outspoken biologist and former California Senate candidate – have pointed out the changing landscape. A large influx of donor money with protected interests has spurred massive, publicly funded grants, incredible facilities to attract talent, and awe-inspiring ambitions and success. And despite many good intentions, these donors have contributed to powerhouse clusters of research – and more stratification of the research ladder system.

Boston

 Mohit Singh / Unsplash

Science's funding has always shifted, depending on what money is available and who is involved, with oversight in the modern era mostly through peer and grant reviews. But as I stop by my institute's in-house barista, the rich get richer phenomenon is plain as the coffee in my hand. The trends point to growing inequality and declining diversity in our system of world-class universities charged with solving science and society's biggest challenges. 

In a system ripe with reputation-driven incentives, this pattern raises worrisome conflicts. How can we ensure and promote funding diversity while maximizing the practical, direct public impact of our work? Wayne Wahls, Professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, proposes some clear, bold empirical steps, such as setting a lower and upper limit to the amount of funding a lab can receive.

I'm unbelievably thankful for the chance to study what I'm curious about, but these trends should make every young graduate student wonder: what will the environment to get a job, publish a paper, or find a fellowship look like in five years? In 10? As some argue, there are too many PhD students, employment after graduation continues to look bleak, and very few actually become professors, perhaps because 40 percent of the funding goes to 10 percent of professors.

In this era of billionaires and unequal funding, where is research going? And perhaps more importantly, how will our changing resources affect the training, success, and diversity of the scientists of our future?

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Devang Mehta

Genomics

University of Alberta

I agree with a lot in this piece. Private donations are increasing inequality in science and this is all the more evident in the US. On the flip side, given the popularity of anti-globalization voices, and the ever growing calls for more parochialism in science, the role of private foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is even more important. I have worked in labs funded by the BMGF and while I have my reservations about their opaque funding processes, they have funded the kind of research that benefits poor countries that rich governments are all too ready to drop under electoral pressure. The BMGF institute the article mentions is specifically geared to providing solutions to diseases that affect the poor globally. Malaria, tuberculosis, and neglected tropical diseases need research dollars. And with governments in the rich world interested in only funding research on diseases that affect their aging populations, like cancer and Alzheimers, I welcome private funding for cutting-edge science in this space. I have less sympathy for the other privately funded research institutes mentioned whose focuses are more commercial and less philanthropic.

Josh Peters responds:

I think you highlight a critical point here, which didn’t receive as much attention in my piece. Private funding itself is increasingly important, especially from organizations like BMGF focused on underserved areas and diseases. I don’t think there’s any doubt about the great distance private money can go to further both basic and translational science. Just as you pointed out, it’s a question of the conflicts of interest involved and how these ultimately influence the public outcome of the research conducted.

Kevin Pels

Chemical Biology

The Scripps Research Institute

I thought this was an excellent article that highlights an issue few want to acknowledge in the current public funding environment, despite the recent modest NIH bump. By underfunding public research for the past few decades, the US in particular has not only been slipping in terms of “competitiveness” with other countries research-wise, but has also created this gap for private philanthropy to fill. As you mentioned, private money has a certain freedom to it in that it is not necessarily subject to grant panel review, arduous paperwork and restrictions on how those monies are spent (though in some cases they are). But that freedom has a cost, which is that the eventual public impact of discoveries that then become the property of the benefactors. I don’t want to restate too much of what you already said, but I think this part should be emphasized: though there are exceptions, the billionaires funding science are often not in it for the public good, they are in it to either make money or enhance their own lives (preferably both). We can see that by their choice of what to invest in, such as Peter Thiel’s longevity ventures. We can depend on the altruism of individuals (like BMGF, as Devang mentions) to make the right choice, but personally, I hope this is a trend that the incredibly diverse scientific community can recognize and push back on.