If Billionaires Fund Your Research, Don’t Take Public Money
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement in September that they will pour $3 billion into research, mainly at elite universities in California, with expressed interest to “cure all disease” within a century, was an endearing move from new money billionaires who have pledged to devote their phenomenal wealth to supporting biomedical research.
Sean Parker, another Facebook cofounder, in April promised $250 million, and Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison promised $200 million, to cancer centers. Eli Broad and Ted Stanley have contributed more than $1.4 billion in private wealth to fund the nonprofit Broad Institute research center and its associated Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research. (I worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is affiliated with the Broad, for three years.)
But despite even the best intentions, the injection of private money into science is creating power alliances and disrupting the longstanding public research-funding model.
If there is a modern koan, it is the unquestioned belief that more data and money can solve most of our problems. A year ago, I was at the National Academy of Sciences listening to a talk by Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute. He described a large study on schizophrenia involving more than 100,000 patients, which found that the strongest single genetic variant could increase a person’s risk of developing schizophrenia from 1 percent in the general population to 1.25 percent—hardly useful. We know that genetic variants that predict psychiatric disorders number into the thousands, each adding small effects, and they are beguilingly straddled over the entire genome. We know that small epigenetic changes are also associated with psychiatric disorders, and that these can change throughout a lifetime, and are highly dynamic. The recent claims that we would “cure all disease” sounded a lot like the White House’s “cancer moonshot,” which proposed to “end cancer as we know it.” Still rates of cancer incidence continue to rise, because cancer and schizophrenia and so many other human diseases are very intractable, for reasons that include their diverse origins.
Robust public funding of science in the US began in the 1940s. The spoils of publicly funded research were quickly claimed by private interests. In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act was passed to permit universities and small businesses to claim patent rights to insights gleaned using federal funds, galvanizing the public-private partnership and giving rise to tech transfer, whereby academics could land patents with government funds and license to business. Most people (including me) would argue that patents are in the blueprint of the American spirit and enable competition and innovation. At issue is whether we should be publicly funding research institutions, when the game of modern science has been made so lopsided by billionaires. For instance, the Broad Institute has an executive pay structure and quasi-corporate governance, which is designed to compete with other academic hubs.
In fact, the Broad has been involved in a high-profile patent interference battle with the University of California and Emmanuelle Charpentier over the rights to a new genetic modification tool named Crispr-Cas9. The Broad already licensed its patents to Editas Medicine and in July made David Liu, a cofounder of Editas, a core member of the Broad, a highly paid position, thereby strengthening ties with its industry partner. At the same time, STAT News reported that Editas has paid more than $15 million so far to pay the Broad’s legal fees associated with patent claims. The Broad this month also licensed one of its patents to the GMO agriculturalist Monsanto Corp. The rationale for paying for lawyers becomes clear as time passes; the Broad’s income from that patent will likely exceed its legal expenses.
I understood the pitch of the competition on a day last year when I was hunched over my laptop, earning around a post-doc salary, when I locked into gaze with Bill Gates, a spry investor in Editas and an owner of science, tumbling out of a conference room at the Broad. To me, it epitomized the broader structural tension in science, in which publicly funded academic institutions have ties to billionaires yet maintain divergent pay scales for their workers. At the same time, investors find ways to leverage infrastructure built and paid for by the public.
Sean Parker’s institution funds science with the nifty caveat to claim the right to patents that derive from work that it funds. The Parker Foundation coordinates with scientific actors involved in the cancer moonshot, so far including scientists at the University of Pennsylvania. Now consider that the biotech giant Novartis, which licensed a CAR T-cell cancer technology from Penn, last year paid out $12.3 million to Juno Therapeutics to resolve a three-year patent battle for the rights to commercialize it. Cases like these show how taxpayers fund basic research (via grants from the National Institutes of Health), while private investment merely makes select institutions more top-heavy, enabling a more cut-throat climate. Salaries for directors at The Jackson Laboratory, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, or the Broad Institute, can approach $1 million; even university settings such as University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Morgridge Institute for Research now establish “core members” of upper management. Those are often scientific founders of corporations with deep ties to the investment community. These changes mean that publicly funded science in part goes to subsidize scientists in their quest to start their own businesses.
Early-career researchers are largely taught to survive on poverty-level wages. Science, we are told, is a noble pursuit in the spirit of Francis Bacon, who exalted the “scientific priesthood.” suggesting their public importance. “If these scientific priests can reach the center of the maze,” Bacon wrote, “they will find the ‘summary laws of nature’ and can use them to grasp immense power for the benefit of humankind.” In the words of Walter James Miller, for the Baconian scientist, “work is public and offered for the general benefit of humanity,” while the Faustian scientist works “in dark secrecy, ostensibly for public good but largely for personal power…and concealing all responsibility for his action.” The Faustian scientist relates to the corporate element, not evil, responsible to private, competitive interests. And so, while science is publicly funded, in the Baconian spirit of the public good, it is increasingly under control of Faustian interests. As often as taxpayers are asked to pay for basic research in STEM, scientists surround themselves with lawyers and venture capital partners. Lawyers like to ask cui bono? Who benefits?
Taxpayers, and importantly, our national funding agencies, ought to consider “institutional health” rather than the needs of individual investigators. Some federally funded institutions are exploiting the tax base to protect the wealth of their investors and partners, often spending millions on grueling patent battles. Why should taxpayers front the money for basic research only to watch scientists clobber one another? The NIH and the National Science Foundation must evaluate the financial health of institutions and their industry partners before funding science, since many of these institutions these days operate in the public benefit, but protect and shield private partners. Journals too, notably Cell, need to take into account “institutional conflicts of interests,” and institutions must be asked to more fairly disburse their intramural funds. It’s my sense that, with increased private backing of researchers at academic institutions, the public funding model may be upset to a degree that there could be a populist blowback to these high-profile clashes. It doesn’t make a difference to the public who wins—and that matters.