Philanthropy, Private industry, and science

Apparently I’m not too happy with the NYT magazine and their exposés of late. First there was the long article about millenials and how they don’t want to work for the “old guard” which is ahistoric and ignores a great deal of the similarities between the silicon valley of today and the past silicon valleys and other similar environs.

Now they are rushing about in concern over private scientific research. Apparently, it’s a new big problem. It’s neither new nor a problem. First of all some historical context. Scientific labs as we know them today were truly founded through industrial labs. These labs were initially in the dye industry back in Germany in the late 1800s, sure there were university labs, but they weren’t researching as big of thing as the industrial labs started. These labs had problems that couldn’t be solved in academic settings. The universities were training grounds for scientists, but in many cases the scientists actually did their doctoral research at Bayer or a similar type dye company. These dye companies almost all became pharmaceutical companies over time because of the similarity in chemistries between dyes and pharmaceuticals.

This was in the 1800s and really hasn’t abated. I’ve written about Bell Labs and Xerox in the past which are essentially the Bayer equivalent for telecom, semiconductors, and computers.

Science has always been a combination of public, private, and universities. In fact, research that I conducted through my master’s degree has shown that the INTERACTION between private industries and universities produces the most important work (in terms of citations). Our concern should not be if science is going private or not. Our concern should be if they are sharing with the broader scientific community. That’s the biggest risk. It’s one of the biggest problems with industrial scientific research – it never reaches the light of day even if it becomes a product.

Why doesn’t it? Well, simply because it’s better protection for some processes for the technique not to be patented. In the case where something is relatively easy to copy (an iPhone) it’s best to patent because you’re protected them. In the case where it’s very difficult to copy (a nitride layer on an Intel chip) it’s best to hide that process as deep as possible. In fact, it’s best if any technique that would uncover the underlying process to make that nitride layer from reverse engineering destroys the product. For Intel, this is the best result, for the rest of the world, it’s suboptimal as Global Foundries and TSMC will struggle for years to reverse engineer the layer if they ever can. This slows the innovation process as a whole, but we’re willing to suffer this inefficiency because Intel makes some nice chips.

Beyond this debate, the author is upset that someone would want to push scientific research in one direction that might only help white people or rich people. Unfortunately, this is capitalism. We may not like it in basic research that is going to be used to cure diseases, but we tolerate it with Intel so we need to be realistic and tolerate it in this case. Furthermore, I think that the author doesn’t understand that adjacencies in research in diseases will arise and we’ll learn more about all humans, not just them white folks. Ironically, at this point the author calls out a researcher that is working with an Oracle billionaire – that researcher works at Rockefeller University.

What are seen now as seminal research institutions in many cases started out through the very philanthropy the author is upset about. Carnegie Mellon University was the combination of two institutions in Pittsburgh started by an industrialist and a banker. It is one of the most respected research organizations in the world. These men were driven by the same desire to push scientific research as Bill Gates and the other (mostly) men on the list.

Is this a perfect system? Not by a long shot, however in the current political environment scientists are going to take money from whatever source they can. It’s merely practicality. A professor will typically have anywhere between 1-10 grad students. These students at the PhD level will likely be fully funded by the professor. If that professor does not get funding, those kids don’t get to keep working and either have to find another adviser or quit. Here’s the kicker in the case that professor does get money – a large proportion of that funding is taken and allocated to less profitable portions of the organization. At University of Texas, this meant that the EE department was probably funding part of the Chemistry Department. Some departments are like the Football team, while others are like the Swimming team. The swimming team might be winners, but are in a small market.

If we truly wanted change in the way we fund scientific research we need to increase the amount of public investment across multiple institutions. We need to increase funding across multiple types of research fields, specifically focusing on the intersections between academic fields. Push for collaboration between industry and universities as well as collaboration across national boundaries. All of these improve the citation rate and quality of the research. We can even work to partner public funds with private funds – we just need full disclosure.

The problem isn’t privatization. We’ve had an oscillation between really publicly funded (1960-70’s with NASA) and really privately funded. In all cases science has marched on – we just need to make sure it keeps on marching.

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