The dining staples you'd expect to find on the street or in diners are becoming more and more upscale in the District of Columbia. What does that signal about the city to its longtime residents?
Scientists and researchers have lamented the steady decline in government funding of science and research for decades. At the same time, wealthy philanthropists are stepping up their support, pouring millions into everything from genetic research to space exploration. Donors are motivated both by personal reasons–wanting a cure for a disease affecting a loved one–and private passions for specific fields. We explore both the concerns over how privatization will affect where funding goes, and the long history of private funding that stretches back to the Galileo era of science.
- Edward Derrick Chief Program Director, Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Daniel Goroff Vice President and Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
- Cora Marrett Deputy director, The National Science Foundation
- Joe Golding Chairman and CEO, Advancement Resources
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. While government funding of science has been steadily declining over the past decade, an increasing number of wealthy donors are pouring millions into everything from curing diabetes to space exploration. It's a trend that's been dubbed "Science Philanthropy." But even as freshly minted billionaires tackle some of humanity's biggest challenges, it's got some worried about the privatization of science and what it might mean for things like basic research and big initiatives.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAfter all, government funding created the internet and landed a man on the moon. Joining us to discuss all of this is Cora Marrett. She is Deputy Director of The National Science Foundation. Cora Marrett, thank you for joining us.
MS. CORA MARRETTThank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Edward Derrick. He is the Chief Program Director at the Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ed Derrick, thank you for joining us.
MR. EDWARD DERRICKPleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Daniel Goroff is Vice President and Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropy that makes grants supporting science, technology and economics. It also funds, as you've probably heard, some NPR programming. Danny Goroff, thank you for joining us.
MR. DANIEL GOROFFDelighted to be here with you and your listeners.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think government should spend more on basic science research? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Danny Goroff, how would you define science philanthropy?
GOROFFSo, science philanthropy and the Science Philanthropy Alliance I'd like to describe, is the process of increasing investment for basic science. And the Science Philanthropy Alliance is a group of six foundations that's gotten together, that's been doing this for a very long time. And I'm not necessarily speaking on their behalf. These are my opinions, although they should be the opinions of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. And it consists of the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, the Kavli Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Research Corporation For Science Advancement.
GOROFFThe Simons Foundation, and of course, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. And so, we want to increase private investment from people who want to learn about and celebrate and support science. And that's ultimately to help insure a better and more prosperous future.
NNAMDICora Marrett, how does the National Science Foundation intersect with privately funded research?
MARRETTThe National Science Foundation intersects in any number of ways. Let me draw a distinction, first, between the funding by philanthropists, by individuals, and by philanthropic foundations. Our connections are much more likely to be with foundations. Sometimes, it means that a researcher will approach the foundation in advance, to get some activities underway.
MARRETTIn other cases, it means that once there will, in fact, be leveraging between the National Science Foundation and the foundations to move matters forward. We have examples in our portfolio, both of cases in which there has been that support, Initially of activities that NSF subsequently supports. And those in which NSF has jointly funded matters with foundations.
NNAMDIEd Derrick, how might a science researcher support his work today? What are the possibilities, or what possibilities for funding are there?
DERRICKWell, there's quite a range of possibilities available, depending exactly what you're doing and where your interests lie. The most money comes from the federal government for basic research at academic institutions. It's the largest source. But there are options to seek funding from industry, to seek funding from philanthropic foundations. And recently, as well, to try crowd funding for research, which is still small overall, in terms of the overall volume of money available. But it's a growing option for folks.
NNAMDIDanny Goroff, private funding of science is nothing new. Some of the biggest discoveries in science were thanks to wealthy benefactors. Galileo, for example, was funded by wealthy benefactors in the 16th century. And our country has had philanthropists involved in science for a long time, including your organization's founder. So, is there an issue here, and if so, why?
GOROFFNo, there are opportunities here. And you're absolutely right, Kojo, that this is something that's been going on for a long time. And that there's been science philanthropy from private individuals that's been fantastically helpful. And it's qualitatively and quantitatively though, different, from what the government does. And it's always had a role, but you can't substitute one for the other. I think that private philanthropy, foundations for example, can often be more risk tolerant, a little more nimble, sometimes a little more patient, than government.
GOROFFEven every once in a while, we're a little more curious and creative, perhaps, and there's sometimes a little bit less red tape and bureaucracy. And so, there are great examples of how science philanthropy has been able to catalyze things that wouldn't have happened anyway. When Leroy Hood was at Cal Tech, he had an idea for a DNA sequencer, and he went to NIH, and they just weren't quite ready to take those kinds of risks yet. And so he went to a private individual who had made a -- quite a lot of money in warehouses, named Saul Price.
GOROFFAnd Saul helped him get started with the DNA sequencer, and that was the beginning of the whole human genome project. And 3.8 billion dollars, that is some -- later, that is something that is generating tremendous excitement. It's a magnificent scientific achievement, and I think that it's something that will benefit all of us.
NNAMDICora, from the perspective of someone on the government side, are there concerns about privately funded research?
MARRETTSome of the concerns being expressed by the public are not concerns that we have, because I think what's not well understood are the restrictions, the constraints. Let me give you a couple of examples. The National Science Foundation has a program, Basic Research for Agricultural Development, or BREAD. We support that with the Gates Foundation. But the Gates Foundation does not decide what will be the nature of those projects that will be supported.
MARRETTThat's the same thing when we see the foundations, and even individuals supporting things at institutions. The kinds of restrictions on conflicts of interest, on the inability to determine exactly the directions that are going to be taken. So, I'm not concerned about what sometimes emerges in the public debates with the idea that there will be this kind of takeover of what's taking place. No, there are just lots of constraints that are there.
NNAMDIWell, a number of lawmakers make the case for less government funding and more reliance on private giving. Some say the government shouldn't fund research at all. What are your thoughts about that?
MARRETTI don't think you expect me to agree, that there should be no federal support.
NNAMDII suspected you wouldn't.
MARRETTThere should. Yes. There should be. And in fact, it is so much a part of our own heritage and, as Dr. Goroff mentioned a while ago, the role that the federal government often plays is to ensure that some of the most fundamental kinds of questions get addressed. To assure that there is the engagement with all segments of the population. And that there are public returns from the investments that are made. Thus, to assume then, that there could be all of those matters substituted, or you could substitute private philanthropy to support them, that just isn't very likely.
MARRETTAnd as already noted, the amount of funding actually provided -- it would not be reasonable to think that we can substitute. It's more the complimentary set of developments.
NNAMDIWell, this question both for you, Ed, and you Danny. What about that idea, that private funding of science takes the pressure off government to invest? You first, Ed.
DERRICKAll right. I would hope not, to be frank. The federal level of funding right now, for research, in this country, is about 135, 140 billion dollars a year. That's a very significant amount of money compared to the amount of money that's available from the philanthropic organizations and individuals right now. But at the same time, as Cora pointed out, the government has the ability to cover everything in science and engineering. To fund what seems to be at the forefront, as proposed from the bottom up.
DERRICKGovernment funding also is directed towards certain missions. Defense, energy, space exploration and so on. We're defined from the top, the big idea. But a lot of the ideas come from the bottom up, and across the spectrum. And so we don't have that impetus -- we don't have mission in the philanthropic world. They choose their own missions, and they use their own processes for defining. So, it's complimentary. It's a plus up in the specific directions that a philanthropy wants to support.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Do you think the government should spend more on basic science research? Why or why not? Do you think private funding in areas like disease research is important? 800-433-8850. Danny, some who are concerned about the rise in science philanthropy worry that wealthy individuals funding research tend to focus on pet causes, a disease that's touched them personally. A passion for space exploration. Do you see that as an issue? Does the individualistic nature of philanthropy skew what gets funded?
GOROFFSo, first of all, I would say that the best philanthropists are those who are passionate and knowledgeable about the causes that they fund. And isn't it great that they can bring that passion, bring their wealth to causes that they care about and that make us all better off. Now, as far as the influence that they might have, there are probably better ways of getting influence these days than trying to specify in advance what kinds of research needs to be done, because science, in the end, the good science wins out.
GOROFFAnd triumphs over the bad science, and that's just really wonderful. So, if you think that you want to convince people that the climate isn't changing and there's nothing to be done about it, you should buy yourself a politician or buy yourself a lobbyist, because sooner or later, the science will win. Now, I would also just give an analogy that I think might explain this. There are people, still, who come to Washington in search of uplift and inspiration. And when they do, I send them right to the Smithsonian Institution.
GOROFFAnd the story there, and the reason why I bring up this analogy, is that James Smithson was a British scientist. And he gave a small fortune to the United States with the idea of setting up an institution that would increase the diffusion of knowledge. And Congress argued about this, but eventually set up the Smithsonian as we know it. And it takes a large amount of federal money to keep this running and to keep it going, but Mr. Smithson catalyzed this, and it might not have happened otherwise.
GOROFFMoreover, even though the huge sums that keep this magnificent public good going come from taxpayers, there was also a fellow named Joseph Hirshhorn, who had a particular passion for modern art. And a man named Charles Lang Freer, who loved Asian art, and I am just so glad that those galleries and those museums have been added to the Smithsonian and serve the public good.
NNAMDIBut, I just want to back up for second. You don't send people to Congress for inspiration when they come to Washington? You send them to the Smithsonian? Okay, we won't get into that. But we will go to the phones and talk with Ben in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air go ahead please.
BENHi, thank you for taking my call. I guess I would like to -- for the panelists to distinguish between foundation funding and private medical industry funding for, like, things like that whole Angelina Jolie breast cancer gene thing where you had a $5,500 test that was 73 percent accurate to protect you if you're gonna get breast cancer but only wealthy people could afford it. And I think that that's the boogeyman that we really need to address.
NNAMDIAnyone care to address that?
MARRETTI think you're talking about, in this case though, the difference between the potential use to be made of the research and while that research is actually undertaken that what, at least the three of us, I take that all agree to is that it's extremely important to have the fundamental work undertaken. And then there must be mechanisms for trying to ensure that the benefits from that research accrue to everyone.
MARRETTBut that's -- I would separate the matter of the actual funding from -- but that would be another reason why we see public support of funding being so important.
DERRICKRight. And that's -- the caller, Ben, you're also bring up a point that I should make that two-thirds or 70 percent of the research and development funding that happens in the United States is done by industry, for industry. And so, the commercialization opportunities come there. Now the federal investment or the foundation funding comes with -- all come with different expectations of the commercialization path if that's where the research is going.
DERRICKAnd so foundations may take a position in the ultimate commercialization of research or they may not. The federal government encourages you to find a way for things to go forward and get adopted whether through a commercialization path or understanding. So there is a fair distinction there to be made between industry work and foundation-funded work.
NNAMDIBen, thank you for your call. We move on to Ralph in Tallahassee, Fla. Ralph, you're on the air, go ahead please.
RALPHHi. I'm a graduate student at Florida State University. I just wanted to call in, you know, I really appreciate a lot of positions being mentioned. And one of the things that was mentioned specifically, that was a potential problem with privately funded research, especially on our end at public universities are the constraints that come along with that. So we're currently -- I'm at a university that has an agreement with the Coke Charitable Foundation for up to a little bit over $6 million.
RALPHAnd that's funding that the department, you know, desperately needs, that all of the departments in our school definitely need. But the strings attached to that have been shown time after time to be increasingly problematic. So while we have legislators who are being pushed to, you know, cut education budgets, there's a dangerous precedent being set for, you know, private philanthropy.
RALPHIt's being called philanthropy to back funding, you know, to fund research that is inherently for private interests and not even necessarily an interest of science.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for your call. Danny?
GOROFFYes, I really want to emphasize that the Science Philanthropy Alliance and the foundations that I know and work with are really interested in funding discovery-driven fundamental, basic research. This is pre-commercial. And this is the kind of research that ought to be available to everybody. It has the kind of very interesting properties that you don't use it up and that it's available to everyone that makes it a public good in the way economists use that...
NNAMDICan you talk more specifically about the Sloan Foundation and what its focus is in terms of science funding?
GOROFFSure. But very much on this idea of basic research, of discovery driven research because these are products like parks and lighthouses, vaccine discoveries or, for that matter, NPR, which people can use and not use up and therefore are hard to finance. And so, we want to make sure that those who are becoming involved with science philanthropy understand that that's what's at stake and that these sorts of strings have no business in this. We really want it to be for the sake of discovery.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that because, Cora Marrett, common wisdom has it that basic research is difficult to fund. It's not sexy. It probably won't make splashy headlines, but you say it's vitally important. Why?
MARRETTIt is vitally important. It's the basis for the other kinds of developments that we can have. So, for example, the kind of interest -- and when we do see that there is a great deal more of philanthropy in biomedical research than in other areas, but even there lots of time that investment is not for the most fundamental questions, yet the only way you can address many of the questions will be through the work that's done to understand principles that apply in chemistry, in the life sciences.
MARRETTSo that's when we talk about basic research. You don't solve a problem about sometimes, called the disease of the month, by trying to invest only in the questions about that disease. It's much more the set of more fundamental issues where we don't know often what's going to be the answer as we are trying to get the set of inquiries underway.
NNAMDIDanny, you refer to a concept in economics. You were describing it in part a little while ago, but I'd like you to do some more. Can you talk about the public good and how it relates to what we're talking about?
GOROFFSo we often talk about the public good. But I'm talking about a public good in the technical sense that economists use that. And that's a kind of a commodity. It's a kind of a product and it has two very peculiar kinds of properties. One is that once it's out there it's hard to exclude people from using it. And the other is that it's non-rival and that means that when one person uses it, there's still just as much for everyone else.
GOROFFSo in distinction, say, to a loaf of bread, if I eat that, then you're not too interested in it. Something that's a public good. Let's say, just to take a random example, National Public Radio. It's there for everyone to use. And if I use it, it doesn't use it up. So these are wonderful sorts of things. As I mentioned, parks, lighthouses...
GOROFF...vaccines discovery, basic research that becomes available, that is made available to everybody. And in fact, Merton had this wonderful view of this where he said that science is -- basic science that we're talking about -- is one of the only examples of any field where he knows where to make something yours, you have to give it away. And so scientists publish things. They make it available to everybody.
GOROFFAnd that's the way basic science proceeds. But public goods are notoriously hard to finance because everyone wants the free ride. And they would -- they'd love to have the public good, but they want somebody else to pay for it. And that's why we have either taxes or philanthropy that support many of the most important public goods, and that includes basic research.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on science philanthropy and take your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you concerned that the U.S. is falling behind in science, including government-funded research? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on science philanthropy. We're talking with Danny Goroff. He is vice president and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a philanthropy that makes grants supporting science, technology and economics. He joins us in studio along with Edward or Ed Derrick, chief program director at the Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
NNAMDIAnd Cora Marrett, deputy director of the National Science Foundation. Cora Marrett, we got a tweet from someone who is saying -- or an email from Sarah who says, "Do you feel the public really understands what basic research means and why it's important?"
MARRETTI'm afraid the public -- we talk very generally -- probably don't grasp. We've had the problem at the National Science Foundation of trying to think of what the term should be. And we discovered there are people, when they hear basic, they think that's like ABC. And they ask, why in the world are we putting fund -- we are putting money into your supporting of those kinds of things, the fundamental, the foundational.
MARRETTSo we're still looking for the right terminology to convey what I think is not that difficult to grasp and that is, that there are some underlying principles that have to be understood as you're going to move to the next level. But we have to continue to try to articulate to the public what we have in mind. And that's not dis-related -- unrelated to the things that they really want to see.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Joe Golding, chairman and CEO of Advancement Resources. That's an organization based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa focused on academic and medical philanthropic giving. Joe Golding, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOE GOLDINGThank you very much.
NNAMDII don't know if you would like to share any thoughts on what you've been hearing so far before I ask you a specific question.
GOLDINGWell, actually I would like to follow-up on what Cora just said...
GOLDING...because I think that becomes the real centerpiece of this is the ability of science to articulate to the public what the value is, what the value of proposition is of basic science research. And that really is where our practice has tended to focus now on how does one articulate this in a way that inspires people to be a part of something that's important.
NNAMDII understand basic science research is the area that you now working. Can you talk about some of the challenges in funding there?
GOLDINGWell, let me back up for just a second if I can and set the stage...
GOLDING...a little bit differently. Our practice began in 1999 around research about donors and donor motivation. And so, we do not -- we don't limit our practice to basic science, but instead anything across the philanthropic spectrum. So we work with major universities, major medical centers and so forth. But the challenge, I think, with basic science funding is that it's not understood.
GOLDINGAnd, as Cora said so well, it seems basic. So, therefore, why doesn't it already exist or why isn't somebody else taking care of it. And so the -- our practice has evolved to the point that so much of our focus now is on helping organizations and science researchers articulate their work in a way that's inspiring to people based upon our understanding that what motivates people contribute in the first place.
NNAMDIIt sounds like you're something like a matchmaker for donors and researchers.
GOLDINGWell, we don't actually create the match. What we do is we help science researchers understand the mind of someone and the thinking process as they approach a philanthropic opportunity. What are the things they need to hear? How do they become engaged? And then we work with the researches then to be able to articulate very complicated science in a way that is accessible, let's say, to people who may have financial capacity but who don't understand the science.
GOLDINGAnd so how do you take very basic concepts and describe them in a way through use of metaphors and analogies so that people can understand and they can think, wow, that's something I think I'd like to be a part of.
NNAMDIWhat motivated you to found this organization, Joe?
GOLDINGIt actually began not in a basic science area or even in the science area, but it began based on our own family's experience in working with organizations and in being donors and recognizing at some point in time that many nonprofit organizations don't really understand the minds of donors, how they think and how to engage them effectively and what are best practices in that area.
GOLDINGSo we conducted research to quantify the things that we tended to believe based on our own experience and we put together a series of findings, and then we started developing workshops that we have the opportunity to present to fine institutions all over the world actually.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Do you think billionaires investing in science research can and should take the pressure off taxpayers? You can also email us at email@example.com. Here is Scott in Washington, D.C. Scott, you're on the air, go ahead please.
SCOTTGood day. One of my very favorite college professors had a theory on evolution of the society and that was that a society would gain in power when (word?) devoted large portions of its resources to discovering and finding basic knowledge, say, like Spain discovering the New World. And the empire would always start to fall when they started dividng the spoils of that research and I'm afraid we're at a time now where we just eating (unintelligible).
NNAMDIIs that how you interpret the decrease in funding over the past decade or so in terms of its percentage in the federal budget for research?
SCOTTIt scares the heck out of me. You know, what are we doing? You know, there never was that much money in the first place and the spin-off in industry and everything else is, you know, how can you beat that? There's nothing else we can do with industries as far as investment is better than doing something ridiculous like starting up an internet.
NNAMDIEd Derrick, I'd like your response to Scott's sentiment, "scares the heck out of me."
DERRICKYes. Well, there are a number of ways of looking at the way the federal government has been investing in science and the trends in this. Let me give you a few...
DERRICK...ways of characterizing it. As a percentage of GDP, the federal investment in R&D has been declining and it is now down to under 0.8 percent. When you look at a percentage of the R&D investment overall, federal, industry and philanthropy, summed up as a percentage of GDP, it is under three percent. There are several countries -- Finland, South Korea, Japan, Germany -- that are above this.
DERRICKThere are a lot of companies -- countries that are aiming to make their percentage of investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP higher and three percent or above. And we are not, we are declining in that way as well. So the -- but the federal investment as a percentage of the discretionary budget is relatively stable. Federal investment already is a discussion -- is discretionary budgets. So what's happening is that mandatory spending is an increasing percentage of the federal budget.
DERRICKAnd so the discretionary amount is decreasing, and therefore, the science investment is decreasing along with it. So it's not that the Congress is deliberately squeezing the science budget as compared to anything else, it's all the discretionary budget that's being squeezed.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to take the scares the heck out of me analogy once step farther. There has been a lot of talk about an innovation deficit threatening science in this country. What are we talking about here? What are the issues?
DERRICKThe issues -- I'll use the phrase that was used earlier, a (word?) it's do we have enough investment in research? Do we have enough of an ecosystem surrounding the development that takes the ideas that come out of research and results of basic research and puts them into usable activities in the commercial sphere? Do we have enough of an ecosystem surrounding it that continues to churn to promote an innovation economy? And the concern is we don't. We aren't making enough investment to keep up at the pace that we've been going.
MARRETTYes, I think -- and the comment "it scares the heck out of me" might also reflect what Ed was just saying as well. This -- what we see, the trends are inconsistent with what's taking place around the world.
NNAMDIWe're going to get to that, in particular China. But go ahead.
MARRETTYes. But what we're seeing, we're seeing higher levels of investment, the U.S. is still in a very favorable place with reference to the innovative ideas, to the creativity. But though -- that kind of pace-making or the pace setting that we've been responsible for, it's not as clear that we're going to be able to sustain it. That's what is actually frightening to any number of us who look not just at what's happened in the past couple of years or so, but what's going on well beyond our own context.
NNAMDIJoe Golding, your thoughts on this?
GOLDINGWell, I think one of the things that science should always do is look at underlying cause. And I think the whole idea of the amount of non-discretionary budget and the growth of the non-discretionary budget is something that has to be addressed, whether we're talking about science or the future of our society in general. And I would add to that that I think that there's a great opportunity in engaging people and of course, the focus tends to be on the billionaires.
GOLDINGBut quite frankly, all of us as Americans, you know, depending on the research you look at, anywhere -- 80 to 90 percent of Americans are philanthropic and do make contributions. And I think the opportunity for us to back bill that as Americans is enormous provided that we can find ways to articulate this in a way that it's compelling to people.
NNAMDIHere is Carl in Berlin, MD. Carl, your turn.
CARLThank you, Kojo. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk on your show very briefly. I would like one of your panelists, it's a policy issue, to contrast the investment in basic research and the investment in private sector research, for example. Recently, one drug manufacturer has come up with a cure for hepatitis. It's $1,000 per treatment and the total treatment cost, I think, $80,000.
CARLHow does this contrast with the statement about economic basic good for the people when one company holds the right to a life-saving material that is beyond the reach of most people? How does that contrast with what we do in basic research? And thank you. I'll listen offline.
NNAMDIDanny Goroff, the public good?
GOLDINGSo what we do when we support research like that -- first of all, I want to say that I would be in favor of facilitating philanthropy, and private philanthropy in support for science, even if the government was still spending at the levels that it did years ago, and even if corporations were still spending a great deal of money on what they think of as basic research. And that's because what's truly basic, what's truly discovery driven, what's truly curiosity driven is pre-commercialization.
GOROFFIt's before the kinds of problem in the market that the caller is asking about. It's about the what knowledge and the why knowledge, even if you don't get necessarily to the know-how. And you don't know the answer in advance. So if a corporation is trying to invest in these things, it may turn out that they discover something wonderful and it's useful by somebody completely different. And so they can't appropriate, they can't make proprietary and earn money on the money that they put into it.
GOROFFWhereas society can have much greater benefits as a whole. Maybe I'll give you a quick example. In the early 1900s, there was a mathematician named Radon, who was interested in integral geometry. And he came up with an idea called the Radon Transform, and it was about the shadows the geometric shapes cast on one another. And he had no idea at all about applications. Well, medical imaging now all depends on the Radon Transform.
GOROFFAnd, also, all the bar-coding scans that we do today, also depend on the Radon Transform. And you couldn't do any of these kinds of technologies that we're using today, without these very basic, fundamental understandings that -- where you couldn't have possibly predicted what the uses would be many, many years later.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this tweet we got from Nagesh (sp?) , "Where is the greatest return on investment for these dollars? Basic or applied research and development? Can public/private partnerships provide better leverage?" To which you say, Cora Marrett?
MARRETTI have to do an either/or because someone asked me something like this not long ago, about investment in translational research or translational activities. I said, "You have to have something to translate." You have to have -- there is this link between that fundamental -- that world of discovery and then having made some discoveries, being able to think about what the applications can be. So it would not be reasonable to go completely for applications without understanding, again, the set of dynamics that must be underlying those applications.
NNAMDIWe're going to have to take a short break. Joe Golding, thank you for joining us.
GOLDINGThank you very much.
NNAMDIJoe Golding is chairman and CEO of Advancement Resources, that's an organization based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, focused on academic and medical philanthropic giving. As I said, we're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Cora Marrett, Edward Derrick and Daniel Goroff, and you, if you call 800-433-8850 with a comment or question. Do you think private funding in areas like disease research is important? Do you think the government should spend more on basic science research? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing science and philanthropy with Daniel or Danny Goroff, vice president and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that makes grants supporting science, technology and economics. Edward or Ed Derrick is the chief program director at the Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And Cora Marrett is the deputy director of the National Science Foundation.
NNAMDICora, we got a suggestion based on your comments earlier. This is from Stan, in Burke, Va. "Regarding the term basic research, please consider using essential, instead of basic. So essential research, might that convey the fuller meaning the panel is suggesting?"
MARRETTVery interesting. I'm not sure it gets us away from the problem completely, because that then leads some people to try to ask, "How do you know what's essential?"
NNAMDIExactly. I figured that.
MARRETTThat's our idea for why were you saying that in the world of discovery you don't know where things might lead. And that if we then have to be evaluated on the basis of, is this essential or not, would that have to be done at the time we're reviewing proposals or just what? So I'm not quite sure. I like the idea of other terminology, but I'm just not quite sure that phrase gets us beyond the problem.
NNAMDIWell, Stan, thanks for thinking about it anyway.
NNAMDIFederal spending, as a percentage of the budget, has shrunk in recent decades. We've been talking about that. But in China, some measures show that China's investment in basic research has grown three-fold in the past decade. Should we be concerned about falling behind?
MARRETTThat's one of the things that we see every time there is some analysis. For example, the National Science Foundation does the analyses on indicators. And those indicators are showing us about how the greater growth one is seeing in Asia -- China certainly stands out, but other Asian countries, too. And that's what Ed was mentioning earlier. We see those kinds of differences. So should we be concerned?
MARRETTWell, I think if we really want to be able to retain a position that the U.S. long has enjoyed for the benefit of the population, we should pay attention to what's taking place around the world. These questions about the innovativeness of some of the developments, those issues come to the fore periodically. But, yes, we do have to be attuned to developments taking place beyond our own borders.
NNAMDIThe head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, recently said that it rejects half of worthwhile proposals because of budget pressures. Does the NSF face similar issues?
MARRETTOh, my goodness, yes. We continue to say that we leave anywhere between about $3 billion worth of proposals on the cutting floor simply because there isn't the funding to support them. The ideas are those that all of the reviewers will agree are extremely significant ideas, but we don't have the level of funding to support all of the ideas. And we're unwilling to take the funding and then split it or cut it up even more, because you wouldn't be able to get the results that you're seeking to do.
MARRETTSo yes, NIH, NSF, about all of the agencies that are supporting basic or fundamental or essential research, have this problem of not having the resources to meet the growing demand, the growing interest for -- out of the research communities.
NNAMDIEd, you know, despite the critics of government funded research. We had a caller who couldn't stay on the line earlier who wanted to say, how effective is government-funded research? A lot of that research has led to successes. Can you talk about that?
DERRICKWell, yes, but the challenge with investing in fundamental research is not knowing where it's going to take you. And how -- what the timeline is for results. And so even recently, small investments looking at opportunities in advanced manufacturing have blossomed into a large 3D-printing world. Did we know we were going to build something that big? No. But did it happen on a short-time horizon? Turns out in this case, yes. But fundamental ideas from 80 years ago are still supporting new advancement in lasers and lots of things that we now use.
NNAMDIAnd I guess some will point…
DERRICKAnd we didn't know where it was going.
NNAMDI…some will point to the internet as a for instance.
DERRICKAnd the internet. So a small investment in some graduate students can have a very big impact as we go for Google.
NNAMDIDanny, for decades the U.S. has attracted the top talent in all areas of science, but studies are now showing that nearly 20 percent of young scientists are considering moving to other countries to continue their research.
GOROFFSo I think investments in basic research, from all the sectors, are very important for making sure that the best and the brightest come to the United States. I do think that to the extent that they stay here, many of them do help commercialize the research findings. And that that's a terrific benefit to the U.S. economy. Some of them go back and I'd like to think that it helps the United States be connected and up to date and ready to make the most of whatever discoveries come out from anywhere in the world.
GOROFFAnd my own opinion is that I don't really care so much where a cure for cancer comes from, or who solves the Riemann hypothesis. I would be very proud if it comes from the United States, but I would just like to see these discoveries be made. And the real issue for the economy is where and how they're commercialized and who eventually reaps the profits in the future. And that I do care about and I hope that it happens here. But I'm must very glad that the United States is not -- is actually one of many who are interested in forwarding basic research this way.
NNAMDIHere is Deep, in Washington, D.C. Deep, your turn.
DEEPHi, I picked up the conversation a little bit later today, but I am a physician who did basic science research and clinical research for the first dozen years of my career. And now I'm in private practice. One of the things that my colleagues, both in academia and after I've left, have talked about has been indexing how much we spend on research to our overall total expenditures on healthcare. And looking at it as a unified pot to pull research money, basically, into our total healthcare expenditures.
DEEPSince you guys have been talking, a couple of other points have come up that, if I could comment on. Would that be okay?
NNAMDIGo ahead. Please.
DEEPSo one of the things that was just mentioned is how effective has research been. I think we under-emphasize and under-publicize the impact that research has had. One of the things that I have been most happy to see in publications, especially in top-tier publications recently -- and when I say recently, only in the last three or four years -- are the publications of negative studies. These are studies that don't necessarily give us new cures or new information regarding therapies for disease, but they tell us things that we thought were good, that we've been exposing our patients to for years, and sometimes decades, is actually not good.
DEEPAnd I think actually pulling products and therapies off the market that aren't beneficial, is just as effective as introducing new research. And I think that…
NNAMDIHere's Danny Goroff.
GOROFFYes. I think that's a great point. And I wanted to make sure that when we talk about private philanthropy for science, we're not talking about private science. We're talking about open science. And the Sloan Foundation feels very strongly about exactly this point, that all of the kinds of results that come out ought to be made available. They ought to be accessible. And that it's possible if it's -- science isn't done in an open and reproducible way for people to really make mistakes and some of those can even have great health consequences and other kinds of consequences.
GOROFFSo we definitely believe in open science. And, again, in trying to make sure that philanthropists who are just beginning to support science, understand that this is the way that science gets done best.
NNAMDIAnd, Deep, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid we do have to move on because we're running out of time. We move onto Perry, in Brunswick, Md. Perry, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
PERRYThanks, Kojo. I'll keep it very brief. I just started listening recently, but in the last few minutes. Look, I think it's really important. I would like to thank the gentleman for mentioning the importance of keeping -- reaping the benefits here in this country if at all possible. And I think that publicly funded research, from what I understand, the copyrights are held by us, the people, until they're released for general use.
PERRYI'm not sure about that, but that's clearly a benefit and a good argument for increasing our federally-funded research. It's, to me, just very disappointing that we've cut our research budget so much. It's penny wise and pound foolish. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Cora, one of the arguments or part of the arguments having to do with the government has to do with bureaucracy and paperwork. One survey showed that researchers spent 43 percent of their time on applying for funding. Anything we can do about that?
MARRETTThere are some things that we can do. And in fact, the National Science Board, the oversight body for the National Science Foundation, has just completed a report on the administrative burdens and how those can be reduced. On the other hand, there are lots of reasons why there are these kinds -- where there's this level of attention to -- if these are public funds, then we have to be responsible to the public on the ways those funds are being used. And that will often take people to do it.
MARRETTWe've said, at the National Science Foundation, for example, we know. We've got a very dedicated, but in a way, over-worked staff. Because trying to keep it down to 6 percent of the budget going for the operations of the foundation, that's a pretty small sum of money. But that's about -- you then have to make a tradeoff of how are you going to invest. So I, on the one hand, say yes, we want to reduce bureaucracy as much as possible. But we don't want to reduce it to the point that it imperils what can be done in the public interest.
NNAMDIDanny, you are in Washington today, in part, because of a meeting on innovative ways to fund basic research. Can you talk about that?
GOROFFYes. Actually, there are ideas coming to the fore about how to use financial engineering to help people invest in long-term projects, to develop, say, new drugs and other kinds of great beneficial discoveries that require funding over a long-term and that can yield benefits, but, as I said before, are very hard to predict in advance exactly where and when.
GOROFFSo if you bundle these together and perhaps make available to people who just want to invest in science, but aren't particularly scientists, say a science bond of some sort, then that would be an easy way that people could participate, along with learning science of -- along with encouraging other people to learn science and along with a kick starter. There are many, many ways that people can be involved with science.
GOROFFAnd I think that these days we see that that thrill of discovery is something that's very widespread. Today on Google, the Rubik's Cube is featured. And I think that nearly everyone in the world understands that that's exactly what that is and exactly -- very quickly everybody knows that they're supposed to do with it. But everybody, I think, also understands, or there's experience or can at least imagine the kind of joy that you get with that last click, when you put everything into place. And…
NNAMDIA joy that has eluded me for decades, I might add. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Daniel Goroff is vice president and program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that makes grants supporting science, technology and economics. Danny Goroff, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIEd Derrick is the chief program director at the Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ed, thank you for joining us.
DERRICKThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Cora Marrett is the deputy director of the National Science Foundation. Cora, thank you for joining us.
MARRETTThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Summer slide, or the learning loss that occurs for students over summer break, is a problem affecting low-income youth in particular. How can educators, librarians, parents, and school systems fight it, and ensure young people stay intellectually engaged over the summer months?
Phoenix School in Montgomery County, Md. opened in 1979 to support students recovering from addiction. The school shut down in 2013, but advocates say it should reopen in response to the local opioid crisis.
Roosevelt Island, which lies between D.C. and Arlington in the Potomac River, recently reopened after the removal of about 200 diseased trees that were under attack by an invasive bug species -- the Emerald Ash Borer.