Forbes has an article on billionaires who oppose the stem cell ban (free reg required): the subtitle is “Billionaire cash has kept embryonic stem-cell research alive—just barely,” which really says it all. It discusses the extremely generous gifts private donors (and also some state funding by referendum) that have kept stem cell research afloat in the world of GW Bush and the religious right. There’s quite a bit of money flying around out there.
Michael Bloomberg: A reported $100 million gift to alma mater Johns Hopkins included cash for its stem-cell institute. At a speech there, he lambasted the feds for not funding the research.
Eli Broad: Gave $25 million to build a stem-cell building at USC. More gifts could be coming. A big supporter of the California proposition that could give researchers $3 billion.
Ray Dolby: With wife Dagmar gave $16 million to UCSF to help build a new stem-cell research center. Has remained quiet about his gift.
Larry Ellison: Through his medical foundation, has given almost $4 million to various embryonic stem-cell projects.
Bill Gates: He and wife Melinda donated $400,000 to the campaign to support California embryonic stem-cell proposition. Their foundation has given a $1.9 million grant to AIDS research at China’s Peking University that uses human embryonic stem cells.
Pierre Omidyar: He and wife Pamela donated a combined $1 million to the campaign supporting the California ballot proposition.
It’s both wonderful and troubling. Largesse from wealthy patrons is a good thing that will help keep the research infrastructure and personnel in this field from disappearing until we can get more sensible leadership. There’s much that I worry about, though.
- The amount we can get from private donors is not enough to maintain world-class leadership in a discipline. This is a stopgap (as the article makes clear), but there will be people who think this is a reason to shut down federal funding and privatize science. That won’t work.
- How long can even a billionaire hand out $100 million? (I know, some multiple of ten times.) Billionaires don’t become billionaires by maintaining that level of charity.
- We don’t really want a few fantastically wealthy individuals dictating which subjects will be funded. This is a phenomenon that undermines peer review.
- The reason stem cell research is being funded is the promise of near-term medical applications. That gives short shrift to the basic research that is a more pressing concern in the field right now. Will the money dry up if the researchers discover some wonderfully informative details about how cell fates are specified, but don’t come up with a cure for Alzheimers, spinal injuries, or heart repair on time?
- The source reinforces funding inequities in research. These billionaires will end up usually giving their money to high-profile institutions or the superstars of science, because that’s where their money will get the most attention. You won’t see any of them giving $10,000 to each of 10,000 scientists—while that would be a huge benefit to those of us at small institutions with tiny budgets, it wouldn’t have the glamor of a more concentrated grant.
I think we can be immensely grateful to these people for helping science in its time of need, but let’s be aware that this is a pathological and desperate situation, and the sooner we can correct the problem at the top, the better off we’ll be.