A libertarian perspective on science funding

What a bizarre Twitter conversation. I have stirred up the Aubrey de Grey cultists who have been arguing at me that de Grey and his SENS foundation are doing great work and must be supported. When I ask why, there’s one point they constantly bring up: he recently got $25 million dollars of funding! Therefore, it must be worthy work.

If he’d received funding from NIH, then yeah, I’d be predisposed to suspect that there must be some core ideas that survived peer review by qualified scientists (peer review is not perfect, I hasten to add…it’s just better than no peer review). However, that $25 million came from some cryptocurrency donations called “Pulse Chain Airdrop, whatever that is, not scientific review, and all of the funding is coming from wealthy donors who have no scientific qualifications at all. So they’re trying to tell me that it is an unmitigated good that billionaires are supporting science — my concern is that this is about billionaires dictating what science gets done.

And then, this jaw-dropping statement:

As long as the scientists being paid to do the research are capable and knowledgeable, the scientific literacy of the funders themselves are pretty irrelevant.

Also realistically, the funders likely do understand the research on a basic level, otherwise, why would they find it?

Two points:

Scientists aren’t employees being paid to achieve a specific goal by a wealthy patron. This is a disastrous approach to funding science, especially since they admit that the scientific literacy of the people holding the purse strings is irrelevant. Right now science funding is weakly isolated from the ignorant with power; congress gives a block of money to scientific institutions that then determine by peer review how it is disbursed. Relying on authoritarian rich people to decide what science is worth pursuing is a huge step backwards.

I doubt the funders actually understand the research. Why would they fund it? Because some charismatic gomer promises them that their money will work to help them live forever. They don’t know how, but the con artists are good at babbling sciencey words. It is such a naive assumption that rich people only spend money on things they understand at a “basic level”, especially when you realize that Jeff Bezos is rumored to own a $400 million dollar yacht (at least, someone owns that beast). $25 million is a crumb, and for that, we want to allow billionaires to dictate what science should be done?

I think I spy a libertarian non-scientist who thinks expertise is irrelevant.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Also realistically, the funders likely do understand the research on a basic level, otherwise, why would they find it?

    Because they can.

  2. Le Chifforobe says

    Rich people only spend money on “good investments”, i.e. the slim chance of this working is overbalanced by the enormous revenue if it does. They are either taking it on faith that de Grey knows what he’s talking about, or they assume he will make money by conning more suckers down the line.

  3. Akira MacKenzie says

    In the capitalist mind, if something is profitable, it MUST be worthy. People want it. They are willing to buy it. No one “rational” person would buy something if their wasn’t some benefit to it. Why it’s profitable or whether or not that product or idea is true or harmful is irrelevant.

    To the capitalist, profit is morality itself.

  4. blf says

    I note the loonyertarian asserts [… T]he funders likely do understand the research on a basic level, otherwise, why would they find it? (my added emphasis). Does the loonyertarian mean “fund” (which seems to be how poopyhead, and perhaps @1, read it), or what they are quoted as writing, “find”?

    Either way, it doesn’t make much sense. However, there is a tiny bit more sense, MAYBE, to what is written, “find”, rather than “fund”. Why would a nutcase “find” something? One possible reason is they do indeed have an interest in what they “think” (loosely speaking) is the subject, albeit (partly due to WWW search engine algorithimetrics) it can (seemingly very easily) be a case of stumbling across something whilst browsing for something possibly quite unrelated.

    No evidence per se here on my own part, excepting the common experience of search engine algorithms delivering odd results.

  5. Akira MacKenzie says

    EDIT @ 3

    No one “rational” person would buy something if their there wasn’t some benefit to it.

    I’ve been having a really stressful, fucked up week. I think I’ve finally run out of SAN and am going Permanently Insane.

  6. kathleenzielinski says

    Libertarianism is a religion for petulant teenagers who think their own immediate gratification is the only thing that matters. I actually saw a comment on another blog about a week ago from someone who acknowledged that climate change is about to wreck the planet but he doesn’t care since he’ll no longer be here, and he doesn’t want to give up his standard of living for the sake of future generations.

  7. cartomancer says

    Even if we grant that the over-moneyed goon who stumps up the cash has a basic understanding of the research they’re funding (very charitable, but let’s go with it), then what about all the research they DON’T understand? By such a rationale it’s still only the science that individual shady cash vampires understand and approve of that gets the money.

  8. raven says

    $25 million is definitely an impressive amount of money to raise and spend.
    But it really doesn’t say that it is being spent on anything worthwhile.
    And it really doesn’t say that the people spending that money have the slightest idea what they are actually spending it on.

    How much did Bernie Madoff get away with

    In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for running the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Here’s how Madoff conned his investors out of $65 billion and went undetected for decades.


    Theranos, the blood-testing company run by Elizabeth Holmes on its way to liquidation, caused several high-profile investors to lose more than $600 million, according to a Wall Street Journal report Friday.May 4, 2018

    Bernie Madoff managed to raise and disappear $65 billion. Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos managed to lose more than $600 million.

    Notably, most of their investors were the best and brightest on Wall Street.

  9. Stars & Gutters says

    Wondering if these highlight the problems with funding for any scientific research and whether these institutes are really that low on funds that they have to depend on billionaires with dubious backgrounds, despite as PZ said, Congress gave a block of money to fund said researches.

    Considering this, what are the more ethical ways to fund science without relying on some delusional, horrible rich bro drunk on money, power & White Claw?

  10. petesh says

    $25m is chickenfeed to the mega-rich, definitely including Peter Thiel, who has been a funder of SENS (there are reports that he has switched his focus for longevity research to less, um, quirky scientists like Cynthia Kenyon).

    Given that, if you are a self-centered billionaire asshole (but I repeat myself twice) and someone pitches you that, for a tiny crumb, you have a chance of trading in your sex partners for newer, younger, cuter models every year (week? day?) for thousands of years (yeah, de Grey has essentially said that), hell, why not?

  11. bcw bcw says

    How do I get some of that sweet cash? I promise to make Peter Thiel and Elon Musk or any rich guy live forever in their forever homes on Mars or money back. Of course, they can write the money off as charitable donations.

    Of course Elon is the guy who has sold millions of cars that are going to be self-driving any day now on the next software upgrade for ten years so who’s scamming who?

  12. snarkrates says

    Telling a narcissist that you can help them live forever is a tried and true way of getting them to part with some of their fortune–priests have been doing it for millennia, and I doubt than anyone sane would argue that all of them had any idea of what they were talking about.

    Paying a bunch of smart people to solve a problem that a rich person wants them to solve–or for that matter, paying them to solve a problem that makes a rich person richer–is a poor substitute for science. First, without a sound scientific basis for formulating the problem in the first place, there is no reason to suspect the problem will be soluble. Second, a scientific approach of letting researchers follow their own curiosity to better understand the basic subject matter will result in a solution if one is possible, but it will also add to our basic understanding as well, setting the stage to solve even more fundamental problems.

    Example: Drug companies spend billions developing drugs to treat autoimmune diseases without really having any insight into whether a particular drug will work for a particular patient–it’s trial and error. This is very frustrating for the patient and the doctor, but very lucrative for the drug companies. If instead, we developed our understanding of how the immune system works and how it goes haywire, we would much better understand how to treat each patient, but a lot of pharma execs might not be nearly as rich.

  13. JustaTech says

    Case study: Theranos. Like, really, does anything more need to be said? Rich people got fleeced by someone who claimed technical prowess.

    @snarkrates: The immune system is a chaotic jumble of dice rolling and dozens of systems to keep it turned off. Maybe in a hundred years we’ll have a better understanding of how it’s supposed to work. Maybe. But I don’t understand how you think pharma execs make money on drugs that fail trials?

  14. snarkrates says

    @13: The drugs don’t fail trials. They are approved and then fail patients. Especially with autoimmune disorders, there is no way to predict which drugs will work–so they have to try them all, usually in increasing order of cost.

    And I am old enough to remember when the human genome was considered too complex to understand. Now it is not only sequenced, they are using the knowledge to treat hereditary diseases.

  15. JustaTech says

    Snarkrates @14: But isn’t that true of lots of drugs, that not every drug for every indication will work for every patient? Off the top of my head I can think of anti-depression drugs, hormonal birth control, and lots of heart medications. That’s not because some executive wants to get rich (they don’t understand the science enough for that) it’s because biology is still hugely unpredictable. Like, dice store in an earthquake unpredictable.

    A drug that works great for 6 people and not well in 2, it’s failed those 2 people, but it’s still helped the other 6. That’s not someone’s fault, that’s just the randomness of biology.
    Scientific discoveries just don’t translate to treatments anywhere near as fast as everyone wants, because again, biology is random and hard.

  16. says

    It’s interesting that people keep bringing up Theranos as though it’s the best possible example of rich people being bamboozled. Theranos was trying to do a very large number of things at once. One of their attempts worked completely: they produced a herpes simplex test which is apparently better than what already existed. Some of their ideas were passing tests, but not to the point of getting FDA approval. (Presumably, once their case gets far enough in court to untangle ownership questions, other medical technology companies will buy those up and work on them.) Some of their ideas were for things which might not ever have worked, and would have required more work even to tell if they were realistic — but that’s not unheard of in a technology corporation setting. If their leaders hadn’t set impossibly short deadlines on a dream project and then resorted to fraud to make it seem like they were meeting said deadlines, and instead had presented the company as “we’re working towards the goal of a blood-testing-lab-in-a-box, but we need to invent a bunch of stuff to make that happen, and that would take time but those other inventions will be usable and profitable as soon as they’re ready”, they would probably still be around. Overall, particularly early on, the company wasn’t a big obvious fraud. (And no, before anybody accuses me, I was not an investor. I’m just going by the various synopses and articles I’ve read about it all, including an account by a whistleblower.)

  17. taykee says

    Yeah. Think about if Katalin Karikó had stopped researching what she believed was something that could better the world. The university grant money machine tried to get her to figure out something more profitable, and even demoted her.

    She’s the main person behind mRNA therapy alongside Drew Weissman, whose work BioNTech and Moderna noticed in 2005.

  18. snarkrates says

    JustaTech@15: “But isn’t that true of lots of drugs, that not every drug for every indication will work for every patient? ”

    That is precisely the point. Medical research is motivated by profit, not understanding. The drug company gets paid for the drug whether it works for you or not. They have no incentive to develop models that would help physicians to target the right drugs to the right patient. In curiosity driven research, the model comes first, and the data about which drugs work for which patients (at least a portion of it) would be used to improve the model. Medical research really isn’t scientific. And it is certainly no more efficient at coming up with effective drugs than would a government, peer-reviewed system.
    All profit driven, “directed” research accomplishes is making a few businessmen obscenely wealthy.