As recently sketched in a welcome New York Times article, America's longstanding approach to funding science is being overtaken by a combination of underinvestment in the public sphere and private investment by a few enthusiastic and very wealthy individuals. As compared to so many frivolous things that these one-tenth of one percenters could be doing with their money, their generous support for the growth of human knowledge is of course welcome. In particular, their businesslike insistence on identifiable milestones on the way to hitting specific targets, like medical therapies for previously neglected diseases, complements the broad-brush and open-ended nature of basic science.
Nonetheless, as the Times' piece points out, the new philanthropy of science raises questions about a common Enlightenment assumption that a rising tide of knowledge lifts all boats. Since World War II the common good has been advanced through more-or-less coordinated federal research agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Elite private universities and far larger public institutions have engaged in a largely healthy competition for government dollars. However, many of the newer individually sponsored entities are either independent or associate with the glamorous "Ivy-plus," exacerbating stressed budgets for higher education and the perceptible fading of state universities in the rankings. Moreover, not even the most demanding and well-endowed non-governmental science organizations can compete with the scale of federal funding year upon year -- even as the science agencies' budgets take harmful hits from appropriations cuts.
Missing in the Times' otherwise admirable treatment are the implications of private science for national security. Since World War II every presidential administration has subscribed to a policy of technological superiority over potential adversaries. The policy may seem obvious, but in fact only a Herculean effort by the Roosevelt administration in alliance with academia and industry enabled the country to be technologically competitive during the war. And even then it was widely appreciated that Germany was ahead of the United States in virtually every element of the armamentarium, from tanks to rifles to rockets. Finally it was the sheer quantity of materiel the "arsenal of democracy" could produce that overwhelmed the Axis, not the quality. The same was true of human systems and not only mechanized ones: American intelligence agencies had to turn to Britain for guidance in the screening and training of clandestine operatives, so diminished was the institutional memory since World War I.
With strong centralized organization the U.S. learned fast. Over the next 50 years American research and development were in a class by themselves, with tangible advantages for national security as embodied in one of the most cost-effective arms of the federal government: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). But that period of Europe's physical and financial devastation was utterly unique and will not be repeated. In 1945, unfettered by intellectual property restrictions, the spoils of war allowed corporate America to troll through their German counterparts' metal file cabinets for clues about high-quality products of Third Reich industry, like synthetic rubber. In the 21st century the United States has no monopoly on superior large weapons systems and their multitude of sophisticated components. Still more notably, you don't have to be China to learn about and apply new kinds of threats that involve low barriers to access, like cyberweapons. In this environment technological superiority is hardly a given. And unlike earlier eras, technological superiority often requires cutting-edge basic research.
All of which takes us back to the growing role of private science. Today foreign powers and even individual hackers present a risk to highly protected military computer systems. How much more easily might they penetrate a brilliant startup? The Times article focuses on the life sciences, but besides vaccine-resistant biological threats slow but sure advances in fields like nanotechnology require scrutiny, and the combination of fields like biology and engineering. Barring the end of human civilization technological progress is both certain and unpredictable. Though national security authorities keep a close watch on technological developments that might be used to compromise U.S. interests, they can't keep track of every 20-something's game-changing notion.
The new philanthropy of science can be aligned with national security goals but history teaches that doing so requires a strong federal hand, including a continuing commitment to strong government-backed science. Like government or hate it, in the 21st century no other organization can provide the coordination required to develop new knowledge about the nature of the universe at the most basic level, knowledge that is now a matter of global competition. Squabbles that undermine political support for taxpayer-funded science -- like those about climate change or stem cell biology or social psychology -- will in a century be footnotes in an arcane doctoral dissertation. The real story will be whether the United States rose to the challenge of privatized science. At the moment neither the middle nor the end of that story has been written.