Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The New Patrons

A few centuries ago if you wanted to do science and not independently wealthy you needed help.
Most of the important astronomers and natural philosophers (as well as artists) in the 16th and 17th centuries depended on the patronage of powerful religious or political figures to fund their work. Patronage networks extended all the way from Emperors and Popes to regional nobles to artisans to peasants; even university positions were based to some extent on patronage. Scholarly careers in this period were driven by patronage, often starting in undistinguished universities or local schools or courts, and traveling closer or farther from centers of power as their fortunes rose and fell.
Today most scientists have salaried positions at universities and get funded by the government but with sequestration and budget cuts, scientists have to seek out other sources, such as industrial funds. We've long had various scholarships endowed by private donors: Sloan, Packard, MacArthur. Recently though we've seen some new patrons, the upper 1%, who want to help out where other funds are limited. Some of these work through endowed positions at universities, but we also see some who create foundations dedicated to funding directed at research.

In the past few months I came face-to-face, or at least in the same room, as two of them: Landon Clay in Oxford for the opening of the new Maths Institute partially funded by his foundation and Jim Simons, when I visited Stony Brook and had lunch in the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. The Clay Mathematics Institute funds several mathematicians and offers the million dollar bounty on P v NP and other open questions. The Simons Foundation supports a few theoretical computer scientists, not to mention the Simons Institute in Berkeley.

Of course the more money coming into our field, the more research we can do. But patronage does have its other side.
Patronage, and the desire for more, also shaped the work and publications of scientists. Effusive dedications to current or potential patrons can be found in almost every scholarly publication, while the interests of a patron in a specific topic was a strong incentive to pursue said topic—or reframe one's work in terms of it. Galileo, for example, first presented the telescope as a naval instrument to military- and commerce-focused Republic of Venice; when he sought the more prestigious patronage of the Medici court in Florence, he instead promoted the astronomical potential of the device (by naming the moons of Jupiter after the Medicis).
 How much do the lessons of the 16-17th centuries still apply today?


  1. So far I haven't seen any complexity classes named after Jim Simons' children, nor effusive dedications to his brilliance in the introductions of papers written by Simons postdocs. I don't think its time to worry just yet.

    1. We put our dedications to patrons at the end. They can easily shape research paths. I am sure there are faculty who chase patrons and shape their research to fit the interests of those patrons (I'm looking at you NSF).

  2. There are more influential patrons in the field: Google Research, MSR, etc.
    I view Jim's support for more fundamental research as a counterbalance for them.

    1. There is a fair amount of fundamental research done at MSR. It's probably the last corporate research organization that still does support basic science.

    2. There is IBM Research, which I believe has strong groups doing basic science research not only in CS but also in Physics and Chemistry

  3. The universe of "one-percenters" is sufficiently small that paths of inquiry return to the same wealth-nodes again-and-again. One such path begins on Wired, where arch-1%er Bill Gates lays out his public-private investment strategy, which amounts to "Capitalism generates wealth efficiently, philanthropy deploys wealth effectively, technology creates new forms of wealth and paths to it."

    Gates' worldview is much-discussed on Slashdot, both explicitly in Bill Gates's Plan To Improve Our World and (less obviously) the same-day Slashdot story 1.21 PetaFLOPS (RPeak) Supercomputer Created With EC2, which draws upon an Ars Technica story 18 hours, $33K, and 156,314 cores: Amazon cloud HPC hits a “petaflop”.

    The natural question "What mission do these computations serve?" directs our attention to a lucid summary of the strategic thought of one-percenters: the survey in International Journal of Quantum Chemistry by Bochevarov et al. that is titled (boringly) Jaguar: A high-performance quantum chemistry software program with strengths in life and materials sciences.

    Jaguar is the flagship quantum simulation program of the corporation Schrödinger LLC, and the Schrödinger/Jaguar techno-narrative reflects Bill Gates's worldview because the largest single investor in Schrödinger LLC is Bill Gates … and because a founding investor in Schrödinger is Gates's fellow techno-1%er and fan-of-simulation David E. Shaw. Thus ends our inquiry-cycle.

    Uhhh … but what's the role of academic research organizations (AROs)? Are AROs supplanted by contract research organizations (CROs)?

    Soothing answers are provided by Goldenberg et al., who foresee a future of plain-and-simple ARO/CRO partnerships in their editorial Improving academic leadership and oversight in large industry-sponsored clinical trials: the ARO-CRO model, whose concluding conflict-of-interest disclosure is astoundingly long and intricate. Academics can aspire to become 1%ers too!

    A deeper-and-broader view of ARO/CRO dynamics is set forth in Mirowski and van Horn's The contract research organization and the commercialization of scientific research:

    "Universities have managed to invoke the ideal of open science while proving unable to maintain it in practice."

    "Another source for the bias in results is the rarely acknowledged 'sweat shop' character of work in CROs."

    "The whole question of the role of conflicts of interest in science is fascinating due to its labyrinthine complexity."

    Conclusions  Have fun, read deeply, and think for yourself. Ongoing accelerating changes offer abundant new opportunities. hopes, and dreams to STEM professionals of all ages … young ones especially.

  4. definitely mixed feelings about this! think its tied to wealth inequality... wealth disparity is a measurable statistic and is very high again, at similar levels to era of the old families you name.... a bigger question is, "how should governments fund science"... a question that goes back to its very origins with Babbage, who was funded by the UK govt, and with significant controversy....