Billionaires may give science a needed push

A fascinating and ambitious scientific project was recently announced. A plan to go to the nearest system of stars, Alpha Centauri, with tiny computer chips that will be able to take photographs and other data. Yet this project was not announced by NASA or some other government funded organization, it was announced by a group of scientists and engineers led by a billionaire named Yuri Milner.

The project will need to clear many hurdles related to costs and simply the sheer distance being traveled, and also in the process it may change course from going to Alpha Centauri to going to Proxima Centauri thanks to the recent discovery of a planet going around that star, but perhaps the most important aspect of this project is that it is not waiting around for government approval.

Typically such a project would need approval by a government agency and funding would be far from guaranteed as changes in power by political parties can throw funding into doubt. No this project is among a number of projects that are being funded by the wealthiest of individuals.

SpaceX is another glaring example of such a project and SpaceX can claim a tremendous amount of success. It has already run missions to take supplies to the International Space Station and may as early as this year start taking Astronauts into space as well. By as early as next year there are plans to take private citizens on a flight around the moon. SpaceX of course had a large amount of funding from Elon Musk.

A little closer to home the billionaire Paul Allen has funded the creation of a center at Stanford University to study Salmonella with the hopes of understanding how drug resistance arises (and hopefully find new ways to combat it). Allen also has funded another center at Tuft’s University to understand how cells can be organized into tissues and organs in the body. Additionally Allen has funded a “Distinguished Investigators” program to fund researchers who think outside the box and are at the edges of science.

The billionaire John Arnold has been a leader in funding to investigate bad science and ways to combat it. Yuri Milner who I mentioned earlier also started funding called the Breakthrough prizes which gives funds to research projects.

These are just a few examples of what wealthy individuals are doing to push forward science. The importance of this cannot be understated. Government funding for scientific research has been sagging and will likely take a larger hit soon. Thanks to this reduction in available funds, scientists have had to spend more time finding ways to fund their research, and thus spend less time actually doing research.

Additionally the reduced funding has led to government programs focusing their funding on certain types of projects and giving funding exclusively to less risky scientific ventures that have a high chance of producing results. Though this makes sense, it slows the pace of innovation as high risk projects also typically carry high rewards when they succeed. In this era of limited funding it may be philanthropy that carries science through.