In March 2020, an experiment in scientific philanthropy was hatched during a five-minute call.
Patrick Collison, the now 34-year-old billionaire CEO of the online payment company Stripe, and economist Tyler Cowen chew on a shared concern: Scientific progress seems slow. As the first pandemic lockdown began, researchers were in a pattern of restraint, waiting to hear if they could redirect their federal grants to work related to COVID. Collison and Cowen were concerned that the National Institutes of Health was not doing enough, so they launched Fast Grants to get emergency research dollars to virologists, coronavirus experts, and other scientists quickly.
“We thought: Let’s just do it,” Cowen recalled. “It’s a little like put up or shut up.”
Collison and his brother, John—a Stripe co-founder—have contributed and together with Cowen have raised more than $50 million from some of the biggest names in technology: Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel . Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy.
The first round of grants came out in 48 hours, and later rounds were distributed within two weeks, a big difference from the hundreds of days a scientist usually waits to hear from NIH.
Grants of $10,000 to $500,000 support early efforts to sequence new coronavirus variants, clinical trials for drugs that can be repurposed, and a simple and reliable test of saliva-based COVID-19. By January 2022, all the money was out the door of more than 260 projects.
The Fast Grants are among several science improvement projects launched or supported by Silicon Valley billionaires since the pandemic began. Donors are channeling hundreds of millions of dollars to research labs and nonprofits to address what they see as problems with how government agencies and institutional philanthropies fund science. They argue that scientists spend more time seeking funding for grants that are more restrictive and see the need to support high-potential young scientists and risky or speculative projects that often overlooked or underfunded.
Collison, along with Vitalik Buterin, creator of the Ethereum blockchain platform, and other donors, pledged more than half a billion dollars to the Arc Institute, a new biomedical research nonprofit that scientists want to focus on. in science, do not pursue grants.
Eric and Wendy Schmidt started Convergent Research, a nonprofit that helps incubate independent organizations to develop research tools and niche or underfunded areas of science.
While these contributions are a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $50 billion NIH spends on research each year, they have been met with applause and ambivalence from scientists and philanthropic observers. Many of the experiments are similar to methods already supported by the government, leading some to question whether funding small-scale science experiments is a good investment. Others question the societal implications if much scientific research is driven by a few technological elites motivated by the “move fast and break things” ethos.
Private donors have long played a role in shaping science in the United States—from the creation of modern research universities to independent research institutions in the early 20th century and beyond.
“There’s a kind of ‘back to the future’ element to what these guys are doing,” said Eric John Abrahamson, a historian who is working on a book about science philanthropy. He sees parallels between today’s donors and Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who wanted to reimagine the scientific institutions of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s.
The federal government became the majority funder of basic science research at universities and nonprofit research institutes in the post-World War II era. Today federal funding for basic science, which provides a foundation for knowledge and discovery rather than solving a specific problem, still exceeds the combined contributions from corporations, universities, and philanthropies. That margin is shrinking, according to National Science Foundation surveys.
The impact of private donors has increased since the 1990s, says France Córdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which works to increase the giving of scientific research. Nonprofit and philanthropic contributions for basic research increased from $1.5 billion in 1990 to $9.8 billion in 2020, according to NSF surveys. Contributions from higher education funds, which include money donors gave to university endowments in the past, increased from $1.9 billion to more than $14 billion during the same period. That growth is largely thanks to new philanthropies building wealth from technology, data, and finance, he said.
These donors “want to apply some of the same entrepreneurial spirit that they use to get their money into philanthropy,” Córdova said.
Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science, which works to increase transparency in the research process, praised donors for helping to shake up how science is funded.
“There are many possible ways to decide what to fund, who to fund, how to fund them, how to track progress,” Nosek said. “We don’t have a culture of experimentation.”
Nosek is on the board of the Good Science Project, an advocacy group that pushes government agencies to make their science grants more innovative and efficient. Stuart Buck founded the nonprofit last year after a conversation with Collison. Collison and his brother, John, were the biggest benefactors, although they did not disclose the size of their contributions.
Collison is also involved with the Arc Institute, which he helped launch in 2021 with $650 million pledged by more than a dozen other donors. The Palo Alto-based biomedical research organization provides scientists with no-strings-attached funding for an eight-year term to study the causes of complex diseases such as cancer. The effort builds on lessons from Fast Grants. Funding is not tied to a particular research project so if scientists want to change course, their hands are not tied.
Funding methods that protect scientists from bureaucracy or allow a broader range of ideas to gain support can be useful in a limited way, said David Peterson, an assistant professor of sociology at Purdue. University that studies how scientific organizations develop. But he has doubts that these efforts will scale more broadly.
In Peterson’s conversations with scientists, some say they see the donors’ methods as an extension of the technological fix in a world with disruption, he said. “There is a sense that science is another institution like the music industry or taxicabs that is ripe for fundamental change to make it more efficient.”
But for a select group of scientists doing the kind of work these super-rich donors care about, there’s plenty of money and opportunity.
At E11 Bio, for example, an interdisciplinary team of nine scientists is developing a technology platform for scientists to map each circuit between the 100 billion or more neurons in the brain. Understanding the entire architecture of the brain may lead to new treatments for brain diseases.
E11 bio is funded by Schmidt Futures, founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, which operates the nonprofit Convergence Research in 2021 to help launch independent organizations focused on areas such as synthetic biology. or how drugs target human proteins. Each research organization receives a $20 million to $100 million budget for a five to seven year period.
Schmidt Futures declined to disclose the total amount of funding for this work but in March announced a joint $50 million commitment with hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin to launch two more organizations.
It may take years to determine whether these efforts will succeed.
New approaches can have a big impact if they’re clear about what works—and what doesn’t, says Nosek.
“The main limitation that we have in many efforts to improve science is that they are done with good ideas and good intentions,” he said, “but there is no good evidence” to know if they work.
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Citation: Quick grants from tech billionaires aim to accelerate scientific research. But not all scientists agree (2023, July 18) retrieved 18 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-quick-grants-tech-billionaires-aim.html
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