Researchers, caught between Trump and inequality, reinvent patronage

How will higher education change in the Trump era?  MIT’s Tech Review offers a glimpse into one way ahead, looking at climate scientists, and their new (yet very old) funding strategy through income inequality.

bill_gates_june_2015In San Francisco, appropriately enough an epicenter for rampant income inequality, comes one story:

At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Thursday, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said that private donors may foot the bill for funding climate science. According to Buzzfeed, McNutt says that she’s spoken with people who could raise billions of dollars to help the cause.

Then from Redmond, home to one of the world’s richest people, comes another:

The news follows the announcement earlier this week of the Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, which commits $1 billion over the next 20 years to funding energy ideas considered to be too risky by regular venture capital firms. It’s bankrolled by over 20 billionaires, among them Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and Virgin’s Richard Branson.

You see, on the one hand we have Trump with his hatred of climate change science, leading to the likelihood of it being defunded by a Trump-friendly Congress.

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 On the other, the 1% of the 1% becoming stratospherically wealthy, and already in a position to influence much of the world.

Other factors may make this research funding paradigm even more likely.

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 Federal and state funding for academic research may face additional pressure from anti-elite feelings or the pressures of rising costs from other domains (think social services for an aging population, costs of deporting extra millions of immigrants, possible growth of the military if Trump pushes wars against ISIS and/or China).  Income stagnation coupled with tax cuts for the wealthy will cramp state and federal tax revenues (and leading to an expansion of the extractive state; yes, a followup post is coming).  Meanwhile, as I’ve been documenting, most of higher education is facing budgetary shortfalls.

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So we could well expect climate scientists turning to the rich for support.  Seeing clearly the threat to the planet and humanity, watching their funding shrink, unable to count on universities to make up the shortfall, they will have nowhere else to turn but the planet’s wealthiest people

Up above I referred to this as a new yet old strategy.  It’s new in that the past couple of generations – indeed, almost a century – have seen scientific research supported by public funding, academic subvention, and research grants.  Hitting up Carlos Slim and Bill Gates for mainline funding is a big step.

Charles II and his big telescope

Charles II and his big telescope

Yet this kind of scientific support is also very old.  I don’t mean Ralph Nader’s call for the super-rich to save us (that’s actually the title of his 2009 novel).  No, what this is is what we used to call  patronage.

A casual stroll through the history of science shows European and Indian aristocrats and monarchs bankrolling the scientific revolution.  Charles II of Britain made the Greenwich Observatory and the Royal Society possible.  Galileo tried to name the moons of Jupiter, which he’d just discovered, after a Medici in order to win money from that fabulously wealthy and powerful family.  It took the late nineteenth century dual rise of the research university and social services state to change this arrangement.

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 Well, everything old becomes new once again.

What next?  Perhaps we’ll see wealthy people doing their own science once more.  After all, the American and British myth of the 1% is that they make and deserve their money because they’re smart.   Maybe we’ll see scientists launch scaled-up Kickstarters and GoFundMes so the rest of us can chip in, as best we can.  Patreon could turn out to be very precisely named.

Academics will need professional development in order to learn how best to speak to this small population, especially as the superrich become increasingly isolated from the rest of the human race.  We should expect grad school workshops on this.  On the flip side, academics will relearn a politics: how to anticipate a patron’s scientific interest, how not to offend them.  And the tides of scientific research will inevitably shift according to the 1%’s thoughts.

Back in the short term, Jamie Condliffe raises another issue.  This could become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

The problem, of course, is that by offering to pay for climate science and energy research, billionaires may simply signal that private funding will suffice—a notion that Trump may be happy to buy into…

In other words, successfully winning patronage could accelerate public defunding of climate science and other research efforts.  So academic scientists will have to be very, very careful in pursuing this line.  They’ll be studying the delicate dance of soliciting patrons on the job.  Call it just in time learning.

(Bill Gates photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development –, CC BY 2.0, Link.)

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5 Responses to Researchers, caught between Trump and inequality, reinvent patronage

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    Perhaps we’ll see wealthy people doing their own science once more.

    Taken literally, this is a most intriguing idea. I’m thinking of people like Francis Bacon and Thomas Jefferson. Are the frontiers of science and engineering still accessible to the self-trained rich in the way they were two and four hundred years ago? Probably not – which leads to the question of what a lab would be like that could meaningfully integrate and educate a Bezos or Gates or Buffett as a worker and not only a funder.

    Maybe it’s too late for the super-rich themselves, but what about their children? Could the children of the rich be pushed into science as a way of giving back, instead of just letting them flow into voyeuristic/narcissistic reality TV? (Adjunctification seems to be leading that way anyway, into a world where researchers and teachers will be presumed to have another source of income…) Again, everything old is new again; I remember hearing of traditions like this in rich families where older children inherited business and political power and younger children were sent to the Church or university.

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